Should 'natural' be held to the same standards as organic?

Think 'natural' is just marketing hype? You're not alone. As consumers grow wiser about their food supply, companies should grow wiser about the word's use. In some cases, that might mean avoiding it, like Tasty Brand did when it decided to go USDA Organic.

As the news of Kashi's lawsuit trickled through the natural products industry last week, it unleashed a barrage of opinion about the use of "100% natural." While FDA does not have a final ruling on use of the term, it does state that "natural" should be used for a product free of artificial colors and additives. About 40 percent of NewHope360 readers surveyed agreed in a poll. But some 33 percent also said the term "100% natural" is just marketing hype.

Companies large and small using that term might be shaking in their boots. But for Tasty Brand, a small business that makes a line of USDA Organic snacks for kids, "natural" isn't a problem. Liane Weintraub, co-founder and CEO, said the word wasn't the right way to go for their company, but that recent scrutiny ultimately means a better outcome for consumers.

While “natural” lacks definition, “USDA Organic” and certification from the Non-GMO Project are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Both organic and non-GMO certifications are rigorous processes that are time- and resource-consuming. Tasty Brand's products became Non-GMO Certified because Liane said she wanted to know exactly what was in the products she was selling to moms and their kids.

Why can't “natural” be held to the same standards? Here's Weintraub's perspective.

NewHope360: When did you first hear about the "100% natural" lawsuits and were you surprised?

Liane Weintraub: I first learned through social media and through our friend Robyn O'Brien, because she seems to be the watchdog in many ways for our industry. On the one hand, it's surprising because it's always a little bit shocking when large corporate enterprises get hit with something like this. But then at the same time, knowing there's still so much that is vague in food labeling, it's unsurprising.

NewHope360: Why do you think there hasn't been a definition so far for "natural?"

LW: As a mom and as a consumer, it's really a letdown that there isn't. Even I—who am in the food business and deal with labeling issues and certification processes—once I'm in the market and shopping for my family, it's strewn with landmines. You're not sure what to believe. And I have a depth of knowledge more than the average consumer has as far as ingredients. Even I get confused sometimes.

These things [labeling and certification] do take forever. It's a really lengthy process. As a brand we have three product lines, all of which have been verified as Non-GMO by the Non-GMO Project. It takes a lot of transparency on part of the brand and it takes a lot of diligence on the part of the certifying or verifying agency, whether it's public or private.

Same thing with USDA Organic. It's very spelled out. It's very clear what our requirements are to maintain our USDA Organic label. We go through it annually. We're subject to all kinds of audits and checks.

NewHope360: Should “natural” be held up to the same standard?

LW: I think it should have its own standard. Or at the very least I think there should be a disclaimer. “Natural” is mostly a marketing term and a descriptor. Those products with "natural" could say: "Our use of the word ‘natural’ in no way implies that this product is free from ______." I've seen sometimes on various foods: "Not meant to imply that this is a low-calorie food suited for restrictive diets." It's a lot to ask a consumer to bring a vast depth of knowledge to food labeling.

NewHope360: It sounds like you're saying consumers ultimately deserve choice.

LW: I would say the same for every category of food. We deserve to know.

NewHope360: Should reputable brands even use “natural” anymore or has the word been villainized?

LW: The marketplace will show that. There are obviously brands out there that use the term and have vetted all the ingredients and feel that it's appropriate in their packaging. I'm definitely not one to say that they shouldn't. But what happens is when some brands are stretching what should be the definition of it, then there are other brands that may feel the sting of that—unfairly so.

We chose from the very beginning that we wanted to have “USDA Organic” products. The word “natural”… it's a word. It's a descriptor and it evokes something that is pure and untainted. When you go one level higher, which is organic certification (we're at 95 percent, the highest organic certification you can have) you can feel a little bit more confident using certain words.

NewHope360: Will we see more of these "natural" lawsuits?

LW: I wouldn't be surprised. The more consumers start asking questions and start demanding transparency from manufacturers, the healthier and better the food supply will be. It's good and it's valid that consumers stand up for themselves. In general, consumers have the right to expect full disclosure. They shouldn't be expected to have to hunt down the underlying facts in their food supply.

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