What "Natural" Really Means
Twenty or so years ago, when I first went vegetarian and really dove head first into healthy eating, it drove my parents nuts. My dad, God love him, would do his best to figure it out. And figuring it out often went like this:
Dad: “I got you something from the store.”
Me: “Dad, it’s a sugar- and preservative-filled, plastic-wrapped package of cookies.”
Dad: “But it says natural! You like natural!”
All these years later, in the marketplace at least, nothing has changed. In fact, in the summer of 2014, a survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that 60% of consumers surveyed looked for the “natural” label and two-thirds believed it meant a processed food has no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms.Consumer Reportspromptly launched a campaign to ban the word “natural” on products.
Meanwhile, the US Department of Agriculture does have a “natural” standard for meat, poultry, and egg products—“they must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients”—but they do not define that standard. They’ve also blown off even trying to define “natural” for anything else. The Food and Drug Administration has no formal definition of the claim.
I believe Shakespeare said it best when he said of the “natural” label, “It’s a claim, full of consumer hopes, dreams, and expectations, but signifying nothing.”
Never ones to be left out of a feeding frenzy, businesses have taken full advantage of this misconception. Think of it like the “cabbies” that greet tourists at JFK Airport in New York City and gladly agree to take them into Manhattan—like lambs to the slaughter. Between January and mid-October 2014, 5,688 food and drink products launched with a natural claim. That was lower than the 7,126 in 2013, but there were still a couple of more months to go in the year.
MORE:These Small Natural Food Brands Are Owned By Mega Conglomerates
In the 2014 “Healthy Wealthy and Wise” report by research firm DunnHumby, researchers found that consumers felt there was a “strong link” between “natural” and “healthy.” Ironically, the link was strongest among “high health-committed consumers.” The DunnHumby team wrote, “New products and marketing that stresses hand-cooked, fresh, all-natural ingredients are more likely to be perceived as healthier by consumers and more appealing to the health-committed segment.”
The report also compared healthy eating perceptions of the typical US consumer with those of consumers in other countries around the world. The US ranked below the global average in the percent of consumers who trust food labels, as well as those who think it’s easy to understand how healthy a product is from a food label.
But here's an example that shows we’re blissfully aware of our own ignorance: In aConsumer Reportssurvey, 90% of Americans said GMOs should be labeled and meet government-mandated safety standards. Nearly 75% said it’s “crucial for people to avoid GMO ingredients when purchasing food.” At the same time, most of them thought non-GMOs part of the natural claim.
No wonder ballot initiatives to label GMOs on food have failed. The consumer is adrift in a sea of ignorance. Ignorance and GMO-laden, all-natural corn chips.
Video: What Does "Organic" and "Natural" Mean in the U.S.?
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