A voluntary standard on what constitutes a "natural" food will help alleviate consumer confusion in the US, a trade group has claimed.

The Organic & Natural Health Association is looking 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.

"Our goal is to support increased access through consumer research and education and we are now embarking on the development of a program that will create a clear, meaningful definition for natural foods, followed by a definition for natural supplements," Karen Howard, CEO of Organic & Natural, said.

The association said it had surveyed over 1,000 US consumers and found "common misconceptions" including that most vitamins come from natural sources and that foods using the term "natural" means no pesticides are used. 

Some 46% of those surveyed believed the US government regulated the term "natural", the association said.

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

Around half of consumers believe that "natural" means the product is free of synthetic pesticides and is non-GMO, attributes that are unique characteristics of organic products, the association noted.

Furthermore, while three-quarters of consumers perceive organic foods must be at least 95% free from synthetic additives, almost two-thirds of consumers expect the same standard from "natural" foods.

Consumers also indicated they were more likely to use "natural" than “organic” foods, the survey showed. Sixty per cent reported using organic less than once a week or not at all, with more than a third using "natural" food once a day or more. 

Howard said Organic & Natural would require the definition of natural, like organic, to translate into 95% of all ingredients qualifying as such, with the explicit definition of ingredients qualifying for the 5% exclusion.

Organic & Natural’s definition of “natural” will be comparable to the definition of “organic,” requiring that all food labelled as natural be non-GMO and not contain artificial preservatives, colors, flavourings or sweeteners.

However, in some cases there will be additional criteria beyond organic standards, the association said. For example, beef will be held to organic standards and must be grass-fed and pastured to earn a natural designation.

Mark Kastel, of the organic food watchdog The Cornucopia Institute, said there was "an increasing smokescreen in terms of the proliferation of competing labeling claims on food", with most targeting the organic category.

He said the organic industry's experience with a voluntary standard left him uncertain whether a similar standard on natural food could work.

"I'm not sure how a voluntary programme fornatural labeling is going to have any real teeth. However, even with that said, there's obviously a reason to enforce, and we will see if they can pull this off, a legally defendable definition of "natural" to benefit the true practitioners," Kastel said.

The Hartman Group, a strategic consultantcy firm working in the food and drinks industry, cautioned whether manufacturers would sign up to the standard, or if consumers would feel it was important.

"Manufacturers are unlikely to get involved, because they have found alternative marketing language: simply, simple, real…language that does not either trigger activist litigation or run afoul of regulatory authorities. Smart companies know that most consumers with strong purchase intent have a ‘way’ to assess naturalness without this kind of regulation being made," James Richardson, senior vice president at The Hartman Group, said.

"Consumers who care about less processed foods have cobbled together their own symbolic system to evaluate products as natural or not natural. It’s a mixture of brand evaluation, ingredient panel reading and word of mouth learning. What they don’t pay much attention to is written natural claims. In fact, only 20% of natural/organic consumers think the natural label is extremely important."