Consumer Reports: Most Americans look for 'natural' label when shopping

YONKERS, N.Y. — More than half of consumers check to see if the products they are buying are "natural," despite there being no federal or third-party verified label for this term, according to a new national survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Moreover, while a majority of people think that the "natural" label actually carries specific benefits, an even greater percentage of consumers think it should.
 
The Consumer Reports survey also revealed that more than 8-out-of-10 consumers believe that packaged foods carrying the "natural" label should come from food that contains ingredients grown without pesticides (86%), do not include artificial ingredients (87%), and do not contain genetically modified organisms (85%), reinforcing a wide gap between consumer reality and consumer expectations.

Consumer Reports is seeking to close that gap by calling for a ban on the "natural" label on food as part of a campaign being done in partnership with TakePart, a social action platform.

Consumer Reports' poll also reveals new data on what consumers expect from a wide range of food labels, including "fair trade," "humane," "organic," "raised without antibiotics," and "country of origin."

"Our findings show consumers expect much more from 'natural' food labels and that there is a strong consumer mandate for better food production practices in general and food label standards that meet a higher bar," said Urvashi Rangan, executive director, Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. "Due to overwhelming and ongoing consumer confusion around the 'natural' food label, we are launching a new campaign to kill the 'natural' label because our poll underscores that it is misleading, confusing and deceptive. We truly don't believe there is a way to define it that will meet all of consumers' expectations."

The Food and Drug Administration has not developed a formal definition for use of the term "natural" or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if "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 the food" — though these are still found extensively in "natural" labeled foods, according to Consumer Reports.

The Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat and poultry, states that a product is "natural" if it contains "no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product." But the Consumer Reports national survey shows that consumers believe the label means and should mean far more than these narrow definitions.

"Let's clean up the green noise in the food label marketplace so Americans can get what they want: truthful labels that represent important and better food production systems," Rangan said. "Our new campaign also promotes credible labels that underscore a more sustainable system, and will decode phony labels that cloud the marketplace."

Later this week, Consumer Reports will deliver its official petition to the government, and the campaign will culminate in a day-long conference on labeling at City Hall in San Francisco on Sept. 19. Over the next several months, Consumer Reports will partner with TakePart in an ongoing series on its site called "Know your food, know your labels" that will look at a wide array of food labeling concerns, ranging from well-defined terms like "organic" to newer terms like "humane" or "fair trade."

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