Blog: Dean BestThe problem with the word 'natural' in the US

Dean Best | 10 February 2016

Last autumn, a US trade group said it would look to develop a voluntary regulatory compliance and certification programme for the term 'natural', with an eye on releasing the standard in the first half of next year. However, the plan has hit the buffers, another sign of how problematic the term - an attractive one for a growing number of shoppers - is in the country.

Organic & Natural Health is a body that includes IFOAM-Organics International, the umbrella body for the organic movement worldwide, alongside the Organic Consumers Association, as well as entities ranging from biotech company Aker BioMarine to supplement makers and a publisher.

When Organic & Health was set up in 2014, it pledged to address what CEO and executive director Karen Howard calls "the massive confusion around what constituted 'natural'."

In October, the body announced plans to study how to develop a voluntary certification. However, last week Organic & Natural Health announced it had concluded the word 'natural' should not be certified and therefore not used on labels. It said the term could be used to describe specific attributes of products in marketing and promotional materials.

Howard said the association's research showed US consumers do not differentiate between a food said to be 'natural' or one that is organic. They expect products labelled natural to also be organic, she said. After careful consideration we determined that introducing a new 'natural' certification seal would not be in the best interest of consumers and could contribute to further confusion. At this juncture, encouraging people to go organic is more important, so we will focus on to the existing organic certification seal and do whatever we can to strengthen that programme."

The association is supporting the US Department of Agriculture's official organic certification, which Howard tells just-food is "the foundation of a transparent standard that can be, and should be, improved upon".

She says: "Consumers expect organic standards from any product that claims to be 'natural,' so we have to make organic better. 'Natural' is not a label claim and we will stand by that position as we continue to educate consumers about the importance of organic food choices and why it matters for their health."

The association's decision is a wise one but underlines how problematic the issue is for US consumers - as does a study published by US non-profit Consumer Reports two weeks ago.

Sixty-two per cent of US shoppers seek out 'natural' foods, the study claimed. Nearly two-thirds of consumers believe the label "means more than it does, including that these products are free of GMOs, hormones, pesticides, or artificial ingredients", Consumer Reports said. It added almost half of shoppers "incorrectly believe that natural claims on labels have been independently verified".

At Organic Natural & Health, Howard says she is "delighted" Consumer Reports' data mirrors what the association has been seeing.

"It demonstrates that we all have an obligation to educate consumers on what constitutes health for our future. Misuse of the term natural continues, although reputable companies are removing the term from labels," she says. "Organic & Natural Health is committed to engaging the consumer groups we represent and the general public in a campaign to educate people on what ingredients, processing and manufacturing techniques, and agriculture practices meet, and exceed, the organic standard."

The US Food and Drug Administration has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives - but the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added colours, artificial flavours or synthetic substances.

Last year, the FDA announced it is asking the public to provide information and comments on the use of the word 'natural' on food labelling.

The agency is looking for comments on questions such as whether it is appropriate to define the term 'natural', if so, how the agency should define the word and how the agency should determine the appropriate use of the term on labels. The period for comments is open until 10 May.

"At Organic & Natural Health the question is not so much should regulators define natural, but rather will they define natural, and if so when?" Howard wonders. "In all likelihood, the regulatory process will take years to resolve. Market forces, on the other hand, are driving tremendous change with major corporations removing artificial colorings and flavours, attesting to be GMO-free, and acquiring successful organic brands. People are moving the needle and driving a new standard through their purchasing patterns as evidenced by the soaring increase in grass-fed sales. That said, we will be submitting comments to the FDA for their consideration."

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