Vitality

Natural Food Labels Are Misleading And Unhealthy, But People Still Choose Them Over Organic Food

organic
Organic foods are more tightly regulated than natural foods, but consumers often still choose natural, unaware that they're filled with chemicals and other unnatural ingredients. David McNew / Getty

Foods with a "natural" label often sound pretty good: We all like the sound of something that’s “natural,” hinting that it’s not pumped with antibiotics or preservatives or other nasty gunk. Given that most “natural” foods are probably cheaper than organic foods, it seems like a pretty easy choice to pick what’s seemingly both healthy and not-too-expensive.

But that line of thinking is wrong, and it could be impacting consumers’ health. According to a new Consumer Reports survey, though most people tend to choose natural foods over organic foods — their line of reasoning being that organic food is more pricey — they don’t realize how unhealthy the former really is due to the misleading tone of the label. While people might believe that natural foods are just as good as organic, in reality they’re not nearly as tightly regulated, and often contain plenty of pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and other unsavory ingredients like chemicals that could be toxic at high doses.

The survey, which questioned 1,001 American adults, found that 73 percent of people chose foods with a “natural label,” while 58 percent went for organic foods. Fortunately, the survey also found that most consumers (79 percent) look at nutrition facts before making a decision about food, and 77 percent read the ingredient list. People want to know what’s in their food, but labels can be so arbitrary and misleading that it’s often tough to navigate.

“We’ve seen time and again that [the] majority of consumers believe the ‘natural’ label means more than it does,” said Urvashi Rangan, director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center, in a press release. “By buying ‘natural’ foods, they may think they’re getting the same benefits as organic, but for less money.”

Foods with an organic label are possibly the most tightly regulated labels by the U.S.Department of Agriculture (USDA), having to consist of at least 95 percent of “organically produced ingredients,” with the other 5 percent required to be on the USDA’s National List. Ingredients that are “organic” typically cannot consist of antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, petroleum, or bioengineering, among other things. And in order for a company to label their product organic, they have to submit an application to the USDA to be certified. Afterward, their products are regulated by USDA inspections.

Natural foods, meanwhile, aren’t as clearly defined or supervised. The USDA describes natural foods as being “minimally processed,” meaning salt, sugar, colors, or other artificial ingredients weren’t added to fundamentally change the food. In short, artificial elements or preservatives typically are not involved in natural foods. But since they’re not as regulated as organic foods, you still don’t really know what you’re getting with that label.

“The term ‘natural’ is organic’s imposter,” the Consumer Reports press release states. A natural label may confuse consumers, boasting of being a healthier choice than other foods, even organic ones. “Consumers attribute all sorts of benefits to the term — no antibiotics, no artificial colors, no GMOs, no synthetic pesticides. Organic means all those things but ‘natural’ does not.”

Because “natural” is so loosely defined, last year the FDA started taking some steps to remedy the confusion. The agency turned to the public to ask its opinion on what a natural food label should really mean. But until new guidelines are put in place, remember to be a discerning consumer no matter the label (as they can all be misleading in their own ways).

“It’s time for the ‘natural’ label to go away,” Rangan said in the press release. “There’s a lot of evidence that consumers are confused about what the claim ‘natural’ actually means. And our surveys clearly show that consumers are being misled. The [FDA] has the responsibility to ban the use of the term on processed food packaging, or define it so it means what consumers expect it to — 100 percent organic.”

Source: Food Labels Survey. Consumer Reports. 2016.

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