There’s a good chance the word “natural” doesn’t mean what you think it does.
At least not when you find it on food packaging. A substantial chunk of the population has at least some misconceptions about what the term means on food labels, according to a recent survey by Consumer Reports.
Out of 1,005 respondents, 63 percent believed that the “natural” label meant a packaged food was produced without pesticides, 62 percent believed it meant the product contained no artificial ingredients, and 60 percent believed it meant a product was free of genetically modified organisms (GMO).
When it comes to meat and poultry, 64 percent of survey-takers thought it meant the animals were raised without artificial growth hormones, 57 percent thought it meant they were raised without antibiotics or other drugs, and 50 percent believed it meant the animals “went outdoors.”
While we didn't analyze Consumer Reports' statistical methods, it seems safe to say that a good number of people are less than clear on how natural these "natural" foods really are.
In fact, the word has no official, legal definition in the United States. The FDA website explicitly states that the agency “has not developed a definition for the use of the term.”
What the FDA does have is a “longstanding policy” that they “consider” the word to mean that “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 that food.” The policy means that this is the criteria the FDA may use to determine whether a “natural” label is misleading or not, if it’s brought to their attention. (The FDA does not pre-approve food labels.)
Note that the current definition has nothing to do with pesticides, artificial growth hormones, GMOs or animal welfare.
And as Consumer Reports points out, there are plenty of products out there with the “natural” label that don’t seem to fit even the FDA’s informal definition.
But the lack of regulations around the “natural” label could change. In response to demands that the word have some official, formal meaning, the FDA is soliciting feedback from the public on what they think it should designate on food labels. Find out how to submit a comment here.