Whole Foods, General Mills, Naked Juice, Kashi, Trader Joe’s—all have been slapped with lawsuits in recent years claiming that they misled consumers by labeling products as “natural.” Last year, Kashi paid nearly $4 million to settle a class-action lawsuit in Florida, following a $5 million payout to settle a 2014 lawsuit filed in California. The company was labeling foods “all-natural,” according to the Florida lawsuit, when they contained artificial, synthetic, and genetically engineered ingredients.
A new survey from Consumer Reports reveals much about the reason for such lawsuits, and for the labels appearing on products in the first place. In short, shoppers want to buy products that are, well, natural, and 62 percent of survey respondents said they look for the label. The problem is, the label is all but meaningless: The Food and Drug Administration “has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives,” according to the agency’s website. “However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”
What Consumer Reports found in its new survey, building on similar research conducted in 2014, is that shoppers think far more of the label than the FDA does. Some two-thirds of respondents “believe the natural food label means more than it does,” and close to 50 percent are convinced that the labeling claim, like USDA Organic, is independently verified—which is not the case. That’s led Consumer Reports to renew its call for the FDA (and the USDA) to reconsider “natural.”
“Ideally, we’d like to see federal regulators ban the natural label, but if they don’t get rid of it, then they must give it real meaning,” Urvashi Rangan, director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety & Sustainability Center, said on the watchdog’s website.
Additional questions asked in the survey—which included 1,005 randomly selected adults representative of national demographics—point to what exactly consumers are looking for from both products and the labels on them.
According to the survey, 63 and 62 percent of respondents, respectively, said that “reducing pesticide exposure” and “protecting the environment from chemicals” were “very important.” Those numbers are up significantly compared with the 2014 survey, in which 45 and 47 percent of respondents said the issues were “very important.” Of least concern in the new survey was “avoiding artificial ingredients,” which only 48 percent of respondents said was “very important”—and artificial ingredients are the only thing consumers are likely to avoid by buying products labeled “natural.”