The Extremely Misleading Nature of ‘Natural’ Food Labels

A USDA report reveals that “natural” claims on packaging mean a lot less than most people think.

d3sign/Getty Images

On crowded supermarket shelves, food items clamor for attention, donning packaging and labels designed to seal the deal. Some 72% of American consumers say that product packaging influences their buying decisions, a statistic not lost on food manufacturers. This applies not only to the aesthetic design of the packaging, but also to what the labels say.

Louis Biscotti, national foodservice and beverage group leader at Marcum, writes in Forbes that when the FDA updated its nutrition label for packaged foods in 2020, companies found new opportunities to increase sales. “Restaurant (food and beverage) companies are discovering that they can use these labels and other real estate elements on their packaging to provide nutritional and other data to drive growth. FDA label information and what you put on your label and packaging can be important ingredients in driving sales. »

He adds that 30% of US consumers surveyed are more likely to buy products with sustainable credentials and that “clean label” features can “convince consumers – touting a product as USDA organic, non-GMO, no artificial ingredients or without preservatives. »

Labeling can be very helpful in determining certain things about a food. “USDA Organic” and “raised without antibiotics,” for example, have specific standards, and the product will need to live up to those claims.

When It Comes To “Natural” Things Get Slippery

A new report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service examines the prevalence of the “natural” claim on food packaging, and it’s telling.

“Food suppliers can use the label that claims the food is ‘natural’ at relatively low cost, because regulators treat the claim as meaning that nothing artificial has been added and that the product has been little transformed”, explain the authors.

Natural claims such as “all natural”, “100% natural”, and “made with natural ingredients” are not defined in USDA, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regulations. The USDA and FSIS must approve these special claims before the food is sold, but the only standard they must meet is that artificial ingredients or colors cannot be added during processing, and the processing method cannot not fundamentally modify the product.

While this is certainly valuable information to know, the problem lies in consumers’ perception of what “natural” means.

“Neither the FDA nor USDA policy decisions address health benefits or agricultural production methods that consumers might attribute to foods labeled as natural,” the authors write. “The definitions don’t address human health, the use of synthetic pesticides, genetically modified organisms, hormones. , or antibiotics in plant and animal production.

What Most Consumers Misunderstand “Natural”

Numerous studies on the subject reveal that people believe that a product labeled as “natural” provides benefits far beyond what it does, with most consumers erroneously attributing health and environmental stewardship attributes to foods labeled natural. The report cites, among other things, the following:

  • In a 2017 study, respondents mistakenly believed that foods labeled natural contained 18% fewer calories across a variety of foods.

  • In a 2010 study, respondents believed that meat products labeled as “all-natural” meant no antibiotics or hormones were used to raise the animals. Some also thought the tag meant the animals were free-range.

  • In a 2022 survey of 86% of respondents who purchased at least one product labeled natural in the past 12 months, 89% said they did so because they thought the label indicated a superior animal welfare. Additionally, 78 percent paid more for the label because consumers believed the label indicated more environmentally friendly production practices.

  • Also according to the 2022 study, 59% of consumers who said they bought products certified for animal welfare also said they bought foods labeled natural because they thought it represented an improvement in animal welfare standards. – to be animal.

Other studies have shown that consumers equate the attributes of USDA Organic products with those of products labeled natural and are willing to pay more for them. Another found that consumers were willing to pay 20% more, on average, for products labeled natural.

The impact of these misconceptions

At first, it may just seem frustrating – that food manufacturers are taking advantage of consumer naivety to raise prices. And that consumers don’t get what they think they’re getting. But the bigger issue is how it harms food producers who actually meet the standards of the stricter labels that actually do good, like those for organic practices or animal welfare. Farmers and producers who do the work find themselves at a disadvantage in the marketplace if consumers treat foods labeled as natural the same way.

“The economic problem raised by natural labels is that consumers might pay extra for product attributes they do not receive while producers of products with those attributes lose sales,” the authors write. “As a result, any health and environmental stewardship benefits that may have been realized by consumers choosing products that match their preferences could be lost.”

Learn more about labels

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *