Approaching a better definition of 'natural'

Approaching a better definition of 'natural'

A recent panel at Natural Products Expo East hashed out industry's rising discomfort with the unclear definition of "natural" and the efforts in place to clarify the market's identity.

An education panel at Expo East this Friday covered the issue of the nebulous definition of “natural” and efforts to move towards a better-defined qualification.

Recent lawsuits filed against both ConAgra and Kashi for misrepresenting the term “all natural” on brand labels highlight the need for a better definition, but the issue is complicated. Organic certainly has a strict definition under the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), which regulates specific ingredients and processes in product production all the way down the supply chain. “Natural,” however, is a shadier beast.

“The confusion comes from having multiple definitions,” said panelist Mary Mulry, an industry consultant. She pointed to natural meat products as an example. While a mainstream producer like Tyson Foods may define natural as “no additives,” meat companies appearing at Expo East would likely define it more as vegetarian-fed, humanely raised, free range stock processed with no additives. The word can mean a slightly different thing for each person.

On the other hand, organic certification is very well-defined, but it's much harder to achieve. “Organic is a fantastic branch to reach,” said panelist Cara Welch, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Natural Products Association (NPA), “but there’s a big gap between organic and conventional. A lot of folks are playing loosey-goosey in that in-between space.” But a blanket definition of natural would be inappropriate for all categories represented in the natural products industry, she argued, because the processes involved in producing natural meat products, for example, are so removed from processes for natural personal care.

In that vein, NPA has decided to dedicate its efforts into creating seals targeted at specific sectors of the industry. Three years ago, the organization developed an NPA Natural Standard seal for personal care products. Companies can consult a list of acceptable ingredients and processes listed on NPA’s website in order to certify their products to NPA’s standard. “We try to stick with processes that you could do in your own kitchen,” Welch said. The standard allows for a certain number of synthetic preservatives and other “non-organic” ingredients. To date, NPA has certified around 500 different personal care products for use of the seal.

Panelist Steve Taormina, standards director at New Hope Natural Media, said that New Hope itself is partly to blame for the confusion over the term "natural." Doug Green, New Hope’s founder, originated the phrase  "Natural Products Expo" mostly as a way to steer away from the pervasive and restrictive term “health food,” Taormina said. But as the industry and Natural Products Expo have grown, many in the conventional food business have co-opted the undefined word "natural" as a marketing tool, without any due diligence.

Common knowledge would have it that “natural” means no artificial colors, no synthetic additives and no artificial preservatives, Mulry asserted. But things have become more complicated. Hydrogenated oils are no longer considered natural. And certain extraction or production processes are no longer considered natural.

So why not aspire to bring the entire industry towards organic certification?

Well, consumers don’t necessarily want only organic, said Welch. Consumers might prefer the effects that certain additives like sulfates add to personal care products. Some products may bubble more to a consumer’s liking than an organic product would, she said.

Besides, there’s the issue that so many consumers place more value on the term "natural" than on "organic," Mulry pointed out.

Taormina noted, however, that in Europe, natural isn’t given the same amount of credence it is in the United States. Products are either conventional or biologique (organic), he said.

In any case, it’s important for the industry to continue to work toward acceptable definitions of the word "natural" in its various uses. Given the two recent lawsuits filed against ConAgra and Kashi, it’s obviously unsustainable to have such a marketing term in use for too long without definition because the industry can’t afford the negative press of constant litigation.

And with the rising consumer furor over genetically modified foods, the natural products industry is soon going to need define itself for or against such encroaching food issues.

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