“Natural” foods convey a sense of wholesomeness, without additives, chemicals, and preservatives, to consumers, finds the NPD Group, a leading global information company. On the surface, “natural” and “all natural” on a food label hints to consumers that the product is free of anything man-made, but that isn’t always the case, and consumers have requested that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explore the use of the term. In direct response to consumers and what the FDA stated is the “changing landscape of food ingredients and production,” the federal agency announced in mid-November it was seeking public comments on the use of the term “natural” in food labeling.
In terms of “natural” labeling today, the FDA issued non-legally binding guidance on “natural” labeling in the 1990s that states, “nothing artificial or synthetic—including all color additives regardless of source—has been included in or added to a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.” This guidance allows for foods or beverages with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), for example, to still be labeled as natural.
What has changed since the 1990s are consumers’ concerns about some of the ingredients in what they eat and drink. There is emerging evidence that consumers are looking for foods to be in their pure form. Today more than 30 percent of consumers are cautious about serving foods with preservatives compared to 24 percent 10 years ago, and the trend for additives follows the same progression. High-fructose corn syrup and GMOs are two of the top-growing concerns in the United States. Much of their concern, however, stems from negative publicity, not science, and lack of knowledge. An NPD report, Gauging GMO Awareness and Impact, shows one of the most common answers to the question of what is a GMO was “I don’t know.”
Prominent natural and organic retailers have stepped into the national GMO discussion by labeling “GMO-free” any products that meet the qualifications. Manufacturers have also decided to call out GMO-free foods.
“This may make consumers wonder if a product labeled ‘natural’ but not “GMO-free” truly is ‘natural,’” says Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst. “This also supports updating the ‘natural’ definition to help consumers understand what can or cannot qualify for the label.”
Consumers rely on food labels to see what’s not included and what is included in products, according to NPD’s food market research. Thirty-nine percent of Americans consume foods or beverages with an “all natural” or “natural ingredients” special label in an average week. Products with natural, organic, or whole grain claims are more likely to be consumed in an average week than those with a light/low-calorie label, pointing toward a shifting perception of health, finds NPD’s National Eating Trends, which continually tracks all aspects of U.S. eating behaviors.
The current “natural” labeling guidance is in stark contrast to organic labeling that has very specific standards set out by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Organic products must meet environmental and animal treatment standards, and they cannot include GMOs.
“Marketers would be wise to initiate a dialogue with consumers to assuage concerns about particular ingredients,” Seifer says. “Education about how specific products and ingredients can fit into consumers’ daily lives also will go a long way in clearing up possible confusion about ‘natural’ foods messaging.”