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Is the ‘Natural’ Label 100 Percent Misleading?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Myth of Natural page.

What do Juicy Juice fruit punch, Tyson chicken, and Nature Valley granola bars have in common? They're all branded with the same mysterious, ubiquitous term: natural.

The natural label's takeover is not just anecdotal. In 2008, Mintel's Global New Products Database found that "all-natural" was the second most used claim on new American food products. And a recent study by the Shelton Group [PDF], an advertising company focusing on sustainability, found that it's also the most popular. When asked, "Which is the best description to read on a food label?" 25 percent of consumers answered, "100 percent natural."

So what does natural mean? Well, that depends on who you're asking. A salesperson in the meat department at Shoprite in Chester, N.Y., told me that Tyson's all natural chicken is "basically the same thing" as organic. At General Mills, 100 percent natural means "that all ingredients used are from a natural source and a natural process," though when I asked for clarification on what counts as a "natural process," the customer service agent was out of answers.

According to Rachel Saks, co-founder of the Brooklyn-based nutrition consulting company tABLE health, for her health-conscious clients, natural "means whatever they want it to mean." Clients with high blood pressure, for example, "tend to interpret natural as good for their blood pressure, maybe not too high in salt." Clients looking to lose weight, meanwhile, read the claim to mean the food is low-calorie. "It solves whatever problem they want to solve."

With all of these disparate interpretations of a once-straightforward word, it may come as a surprise that there is, at least on principle, some official government guidance to how the word should be used.

What confuses most people, however, is that the two agencies that regulate food in this country - the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) - have very different approaches to the term. 


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