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Consumer Reports shouldn't sweep "natural" under the rug

A new campaign by Consumer Reports aims to eliminate the term "natural" from all food labels. This is an unsustainable and knee-jerk solution.

The term “natural” is grossly insufficient. Not only is its prolific use in processed food brands misleading, but the FDA’s definition is loose and open to misinterpretation. (I know, I sound like a broken record—anyone involved in our industry has likely heard repeated war calls to have “natural” defined.)

But rather than vie for a solid definition, a new campaign by Consumer Reports and TakePart, a media website that incorporates social advocacy, aims to remove “natural” from the food labeling lexicon altogether. “It’s time to drop this deceptive label for good,” reads TakePart’s petition to the FDA and USDA. “They should prohibit the use of the ‘natural’ label on food … drop the misleading ‘natural’ label from food once and for all!”

It’s understandable why the folks at Consumer Reports are outraged. According to their recent survey involving 1,000 people, nearly two-thirds of respondents believed that “natural” meant a processed food contains no artificial ingredients, pesticides or GMOs. This study, coupled with the slurry of natural lawsuits working their way through the U.S. justice system indicates that reform is certainly needed.

Movements to remedy the “natural” debacle have been building for several years. Only Organic, an organization backed by certified organic companies including Happy Family, Rudi’s, Late July and Annie’s Homegrown, for example, educates and informs that “natural” is a meaningless term. Their recommendation, of course, is for consumers to seek USDA Organic products if they want assurance that foods are truly clean and responsibly produced. This is a worthy suggestion.

But I have some (antibiotic-free, grass-fed) beef with the Consumer Reports-TakePart campaign. The urge to completely eradicate the term “natural” from any food product is an odd, knee-jerk reaction to problem solving that rarely works. Much like I sweep the dirt under the rug when I clean my living room floor (sorry, Mom!), Consumer Reports is attacking the labeling problem unsustainably.

For the sake of argument, let’s consider that “natural” is eliminated from food terminology—release the balloons and pop the champagne. But following this brief celebration, food manufacturers will simply find another unregulated, meaningless term to slap onto packages. “Clean,” “fresh,” “wholesome.” There are plenty of fitting words to choose from.

Defining natural will not be a walk in the park. This we know. But we must have a packaging term that tightropes the line between USDA Organic’s high price point and a free-for-all food market of unfettered terms. I'm confident we can elevate "natural" to step up to the plate.

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