Is the 100 Percent Natural Label 100 Percent Misleading?

08 Sep, 2012

by Deena Shanker, via Grist.org

100% Natural labelWhat 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.

A meaty approach

The USDA, which is tasked with regulating meat and poultry, says 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.”

As little as this definition really tells us, Stephen Gardner, director of litigation for the Center of Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), says it beats the FDA’s definition hands down. “Meat is an easy one. Natural, at a minimum, should be what you get off the cow, or the pig, or the chicken. It shouldn’t be treated.” And for the most part, that is what natural means when used on meat products. It says nothing about what happened to the animal before slaughter, what it was fed or treated with while alive (read: GMO corn or grass, antibiotics or not), or under what kinds of conditions it was raised. But it does mean that between the slaughterhouse and the supermarket, nothing was added or done to it. (Gardner notes that there are some outliers that seem to have escaped the USDA’s eye, like chicken that is pumped with salt water to give it a healthier appearance and better taste.)

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