Leadership

Survey: Definition of ‘Natural’ Food Remains Murky for Consumers

By / Oct 7, 2015 (Brooke Cagle/StockSnap)

What’s the difference between natural and organic? When it comes to food products, one-third of consumers don’t know, according to a new survey by an association looking to create more standardized terminology.

What, exactly, is the difference between natural and organic foods?

Organic foods must be certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to California Certified Organic Farmers: “Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals fed 100% organic feed and forage, given no antibiotics or growth hormones, and raised in conditions that follow their natural behaviors.”

Similar mandates protect plant foods: “As for the land — certified organic produce is grown on soil that has been free of prohibited substances for three years prior to harvest to ensure that the crops will not be contaminated.”

You can dig into the details on the USDA’s site, but in short, foods labeled organic must meet a number of different criteria.

But what about “natural” foods? That’s a different story. Washington Post food reporter Roberto A. Ferdman notably called the word “utterly meaningless.”

The food industry now sells almost $41 billion worth of food each year labeled with the word “natural,” according to data from Nielsen. And the “natural” means, well, nothing. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t even have an official definition or delineation of what “natural” actually means.

The real issue here is that consumers don’t understand the difference between the two labels. One is a standard for quality, while the other is a marketing term. A recent study from the Organic & Natural Health Association [PDF] “found that 1 in 3 consumers do not make a quality distinction between the terms ‘natural’ and ‘organic.'”

Here are a few other findings that ONHA CEO and Executive Director Karen Howard pointed to, in support of the association’s campaign for a clear definition of “natural” foods:

“Forty-six percent of consumers surveyed [believe] that the government regulates the term ‘natural.'”

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“While three-fourths of consumers perceive that Organic foods must be at least 95% free from synthetic additives, almost two-thirds of consumers expect the same standard from ‘Natural’ foods.”

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“[A percentage of] Consumers indicated that they were more likely to use ‘natural’ than ‘organic’ foods.”

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Hungry for Change

Based on the results of this study, ONHA plans to establish a “meaningful definition for natural foods.”

“Our goal is to support increased access through consumer research and education and we are now embarking on the development of a program that will create a clear, meaningful definition for natural foods, followed by a definition for natural supplements,” Howard said in a news release.

Traceability is a big part of enforcing that new definition. As devices and individuals become more connected, some food products are already part of the Internet of Things.

“When it comes to traceability, which directly relates to quality, Organic & Natural is taking a value-added approach, accepting documentation from recognized, demonstrated effective, seals and programs,” Howard said. “This includes documentation of each company’s supply chain, including monitoring and testing of raw ingredients.”

Jimmy Daly

Jimmy is a writer, editor and outdoorsman. He also publishes a weekly newsletter with inspiration and insight for creatives. More »

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