Now that is a great question! In a world of health-conscious people, food manufacturers are quick to use the terms “healthy” and “natural” on their food packaging labels to attract customers. And the ploy is working; more people buy foods labelled “natural” than organic foods – 73% compared to 58% - according to a 2016 survey by Consumer Reports. From breakfast cereal to confectionery to fruit juice, it’s hard to come by a product that doesn’t feature such wording, which often leaves one wondering how well regulated the use of these terms is.
The definition of “natural” and what makes it attractive
UK’s Foods Standards Agency, FSA, defines natural products as “ingredients produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man”, while Israel only allows inclusion of natural ingredients, which must be physical treatments and not chemical modifications.
From a consumer point of view, shoppers often go for “natural” foods because they believe they are minimally processed, or that the ingredients used are wholly natural products. Others buy “natural” foods because they think they’re getting the same benefits as organic food, but at a cheaper price, according to the director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center, Urvashi Rangen.
Would a product like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) pass as natural?
The US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 1991 guidelines state that for a food product to be considered natural “nothing artificial or synthetic (including colours regardless of source) is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there”. So while most people would say HFCS isn’t a natural product, under FDA guidelines it may actually qualify depending on how it is made and handled.
Paying a premium for the "feel better" factor... with no clarity, consistency or transparency in the term, food manufacturers will put "natural" on just about anything because they know you want to fell better about purchasing it.
1. Whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural”,
2. If so, how the term and acceptable use of “natural” should be defined; and
3. How this acceptable use of “natural” on food labels can be determined by the FDA.
In Australia, food labelling is regulated by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) Code which sets out the legislated food standards. Unfortunately, while the code addresses nutritional and health claims, it is mute on the use of the words like “natural”, “pure”, or “fresh” in food labelling. Not even process claims such as “pasteurised” or “halal” are regulated by the Code.
Health and nutrition content claims
The FSANZ code states that a product can only make claims of having a health or nutritional value if a clear relationship between the food and the health/nutrition attributes has been established according to the code’s standards. For example, if the product label carries a ‘good source of calcium’ claim, the food should contain at least the amount of calcium specified in the Standard.
Claims to a product being ‘natural’
Australia like its US counterpart is somewhat lagging behind other jurisdictions like the UK and Israel on regulation of natural food product labelling. FSANZ is reaching out to overseas governing bodies, including in the US, to help develop the Australian Code and Standards, offering hope that a clearer position can be taken on the matter.
That lack of clarity, consistency and transparency is something to consider the next time you’re considering paying as premium for a packet of corn chips, lollies, beverage or breakfast cereal etc marketed with “natural” ingredients.
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- Addressing Consumer Confusion Surrounding "Natural" Food Claims. Parasidis E, Hooker N, Simons CT. Am J Law Med. 2015;41(2-3):357-73.
- How the nutrition food label was developed, Part 2: the purpose and promise of nutrition claims. Taylor CL, Wilkening VL. J Am Diet Assoc. 2008 Apr;108(4):618-23.