“Natural”

Not Meaningful

The “natural” label is not verified and is not meaningful. There are no consistent standards to ensure that the label means what it implies to consumers: that the food was produced without chemical fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, genetically engineered crops, chemical processing aids, and artificial ingredients. Each company can use its own definition, and definitions vary widely. Government agencies only provide guidance, not regulations, for companies using the “natural” claim.

Is the label verified?

No

Is the meaning of the label consistent?

No

Are the label standards publicly available?

No

Is information about the organization publicly available?

No

Is the organization free from conflict of interest?

N/A

Was the label developed with broad public and industry input?

No

This label can be found on: The “natural” label claim can be found on foods and beverages. 

ORGANIZATION: There is no organization behind the label. Each company can determine its own definition for the “natural” labeling claim.

LABEL STANDARDS: There are no standards. The USDA provides guidance on “natural” labeling on meat and poultry, but there is no formal rule.

What this label means

Food and Drug Administration (FDA): The FDA regulates processed food, produce and most fish, but the agency does not have a formal rule to ensure the consistent and meaningful use of the “natural” labeling claim.

In November 2015, FDA requested comment from the public on whether the agency should define, through rulemaking, the term “natural” in food labeling. There is currently no formal definition and no rule, no verification and virtually no oversight and enforcement.

In its notification of request for comments, the FDA stated that its current policy is to not restrict the use of the term “natural” on foods and beverages, except for added color, synthetic substances and flavors, and that it considers “natural” to mean nothing artificial or synthetic is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there. The FDA’s policy for “natural” labeling does not address food production methods, such as the use of chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides, genetically engineered organisms (GMOs), nanopesticides, nanofertilizers and synthetic processing aids. 

Even the current policy for “natural” labeling is not adequately enforced, since we have found plenty of foods with the “natural” label in the marketplace that contain artificial ingredients.

US Department of Agriculture (USDA): The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates labeling claims on meat and poultry. The agency defines the “natural” claim in its “Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book,” which provides guidance but is not a formal rule. The Policy Book defines “natural claims” as follows:

The term “natural” may be used on labeling for meat products and poultry products, provided the applicant for such labeling demonstrates that:

the product does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, or chemical preservative (as defined in 21 CFR 101.22), or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and (2) the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed. 

The USDA’s guidelines define “minimal processing” as follows:

Minimal processing may include: (a) those traditional processes used to make food edible or to preserve it or to make it safe for human consumption, e.g., smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, and fermenting, or (b) those physical processes which do not fundamentally alter the raw product and/or which only separate a whole, intact food into component parts, e.g., grinding meat, separating eggs into albumen and yolk, and pressing fruits to produce juices. Relatively severe processes, e.g., solvent extraction, acid hydrolysis, and chemical bleaching would clearly be considered more than minimal processing.

However, the USDA still allows products containing an ingredient which has been more than minimally processed to be labeled “natural.” The USDA grants exceptions on a case-by-case basis, and would allow the “natural” claim if it is qualified by identifying the ingredient. For example, a “all natural, except dextrose, modified food starch” claim would be permitted.

Meat, from regular or cloned animals, and poultry which has been raised entirely indoors, given antibiotics and other drugs, and fed the remains of other animals as well as GMO feed, can all be labeled “natural.”

CONSUMER REPORTS EVALUATION

How meaningful is this label? 

Not meaningful.

The “natural” label does not mean what the vast majority of consumers expect it to mean. Consumer survey data, from Consumer Reports National Research Center polls conducted in April 2014 and December 2015, show that consumers overwhelmingly expect foods with the “natural” label to:

  • Be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides
  • Contain no genetically engineered organisms (“GMOs”)
  • Be processed without chemical processing aids
  • Contain no added artificial ingredients

For animal products labeled “natural,” a vast majority of consumers expect the animals to be raised with:

  • No antibiotics and drugs
  • No artificial growth hormones
  • No GMOs in feed
  • No artificial ingredients and colors in feed
  • Access to the outdoors 

The USDA verifies whether meat and poultry products labeled “natural” contain no artificial additives and are only minimally processed, and requires that all products claiming to be natural be accompanied (either by appearing directly beneath or beside the claim, or with an asterisk) by a brief statement that explains what is meant by the term natural, i.e., that the product contains no artificial ingredients and is only minimally processed. The USDA’s definition of “natural” does not cover other aspects of food production, such as the animal’s feed or how the animals were raised.

For foods other than meat and poultry, the Food and Drug Administration has no formal definition for the “natural” label and no requirements for verification.

Is the label verified?

No.

The Food and Drug Administration has no requirements for verification.

For meat and poultry, the US Department of Agriculture requires verification from companies that use the “natural” labeling claim. The agency performs a desk audit of an application for label approval from the company, and verifies only whether its narrow requirements are met. The USDA verifies whether the product label meets its definition of “natural,” meaning that the final product must be minimally processed and contain no artificial additives, which falls short of consumer expectations for the “natural” label.

Is the meaning of the label consistent?

No. 

Since each company can determine its own definition for “natural” on foods other than meat and poultry, there is no consistency in the meaning of the label.

Are the label standards publicly available?

No. 

Government agencies only provide guidance, not formal standards, for foods labeled “natural.” Each company can determine its own definition, and does not have to share its definition with the public.

Is information about the organization publicly available?

No. 

There is no organization behind the label.

Is the organization free from conflict of interest?

Not applicable.

There is no organization behind the label. 

Was the label developed with broad public and industry input?

No.

Each company can determine its own definition of the “natural” label for foods other than meat and poultry.

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