A recent survey of natural food and beverage trends reveals that consumers have lost trust in the term natural and manufacturers are increasingly avoiding the word on labels.
It's no wonder consumers are jaded and confused. There is no federal definition of what constitutes a natural product—in contrast to, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's complex definition of (and standards for) organic. Consider a recent campaign that referred to the soft drink 7UP as natural in spite of its use of high-fructose corn syrup. The Food and Drug Administration ruled that HFCS was not natural, then quickly reversed itself. However, the agency declined to offer a general definition of natural.
In personal care, the Natural Products Association has created its own standard and seal for use of the word natural, which prohibits the use of many common skin care petrochemicals. The seal sets a high standard, but federal regulations don't govern its use. Instead, companies may opt into the Natural Seal program through the NPA.
For supplements, FDA regulations for labeling require that all dietary ingredients derived from a natural source declare that source in the Supplement Facts box—or example, "Vitamin C (from rose hips)" rather than synthetic vitamin C. "The term natural was popular, but has now become overused," says Susan Brienza, a Denver-based lawyer specializing in FDA and advertising law with Patton Boggs. "But if a company wants to claim '100 percent natural' on supplement labels or promotions, then per [Federal Trade Commission] law it must ensure that all dietary ingredients are truly from natural sources."
If any further government regulation of the term arrives in the near future, it will likely come from the USDA, which is considering proposals for a natural seal similar to, though less stringent than, its organic seal. Currently, a chicken product may use the word natural on a label, but it only means that the product is minimally processed without added preservatives or chemicals. It says nothing about the use of antibiotics or the conditions under which an animal was raised. About 20 years ago, Coleman Natural Products persuaded the USDA to permit a natural claim on its beef, as long as it came from cattle raised from birth with no added growth hormones or antibiotics. Natural pork producers follow a similar protocol and standards. The natural label the USDA is considering would carry similar requirements.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 12/p. 10