Can We Bring Meaning Back to the Term ‘Natural Foods’?

Can We Bring Meaning Back to the Term 'Natural Foods'?
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Over the past several years, the term “natural” has appeared on everything from cereal bars containing as much sugar as candy to oats boasting the “all-natural” unlisted ingredient of glyphosate herbicide. These “natural foods” are anything but, but this begs the question: what does “natural” really mean when it comes to food?

A new study has found that despite the lack of any official government meaning associated with the term “natural,” a food product’s success today is primarily defined by whether consumers perceive it as natural or not. More than ever before, it’s essential that the term be reclaimed and its meaning restored.

What Do People Expect of Natural Foods?

The new study, published earlier this summer, was a content review conducted by Hero Group in cooperation with University of Murcia and ETH Zürich. The goal of the study was to better understand consumer expectations with regard to natural foods.

“We did not want to impose our idea of what we believe constitutes naturalness, but rather find out what consumers understand it to be,” said Luisma Sánchez-Siles, Director of Innovation at the Hero Group and one of the researchers in the study, entitled “The Importance of Food Naturalness for Consumers: Results of a Systematic Review.”

“The importance of naturalness for foodstuffs is of great practical relevance, yet it has never been the subject of in-depth research,” says study author Michael Siegrist of ETH Zurich.

The content review was comprised of of 72 studies spanning two decades across 32 countries. The researchers found that consumers use 15 distinct attributes to identify natural foods, which they were able to organize into three major categories: origin of the raw materials (where and how the foods are grown), ingredients used (the presence or absence of artificial ingredients, preservatives, additives, artificial colors and flavors, chemicals, hormones, pesticides, and GMOs), and level of processing in the final product.

The researchers also found that consumers are more likely to focus on a lack of negative attributes as opposed to the presence of positive attributes: we are better able to recognize a food that isn’t natural than one that is (which means that the an ever-growing trend of lawsuits sweeping through courts across the country challenging brands’ individual uses of the term isn’t all that surprising.)

Why Is ‘Natural Food’ So Meaningless?

It’s clear from the research that consumers want natural food badly, but they still have to contend with the fact that foods labeled natural (or whole, wholesome, or healthy) might not live up to that claim. Unlike humane, non-GMO, or organic, the term “natural” is not certified or regulated by any body (the aforementioned terms are certified by the Animal Welfare Approved label, non-GMO Project, and USDA, respectively), but a 2015 survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center suggested that not only do a whopping 62 percent of consumers buy foods with the word “natural” on the label, more than half of these people incorrectly believe that these so-called “natural foods” are independently verified.

To add insult to injury, the FDA continues to refuse to define the term. Even after a call for comments that closed in May 2016, the FDA has yet to weigh in; the only information the agency has published on the topic is as follows:

“Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term ‘natural,’ we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of ‘natural’ in human food labeling. The FDA has considered the term ‘natural’ to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.”

The lack of regulation with regard to the term has resulted in a slew of class action lawsuits challenging individual uses of the word “natural,” many of which have become “increasingly farfetched” following some early successes, according to ClassAction.org.

“For example,” they write, “suing Kashi for allegedly slipping GMOs into its Go Lean Crunch cereal may be easier than arguing that a reasonable consumer would have never suspected Smucker’s Crisco cooking oils to contain GMOs.”

These attempts on the part of attorneys to milk the industry has resulted in the fight for meaning to become utterly diluted and the struggle for meaning to take on an air of ridiculousness.

Giving Meaning Back to ‘Natural Foods’

The researchers do not think all is lost when it comes to natural foods, and clear communication of consumer expectations may be the first step.

“We believe that providing the industry and consumers a common understanding of the term ‘natural’ would help add transparency and clarity into this complex topic, which has been missing – and which consumers deserve,” says Sanchez-Stiles.

One key to success will be getting rid of one commonly seen modifier for the term natural: 100 percent.

“As evidenced in our study, this is indeed a very complex and abstract concept,” Sanchez-Stiles says. “Therefore it is not a question of being ‘100 percent natural’ or not. Rather, the opportunity would be to establish the degree to which a product is natural based on consumer understandings of the term – including the ingredients in a product, how they are processed and how they are finally offered to consumers.”

“Industry certification on the attributes identified in our study (e.g., fresh, minimally processed, eco-friendly, local) can be a very effective way to establish the degree to which a product is more or less natural (taking into account consumers’ perspective),” adds Sergio Roman, study co-author from the University of Murcia.

Possible industry certifications, then, would take into account these attributes and, more importantly, hold brands claiming that their products are “natural foods” accountable to what consumers expect from these products.

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Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.