Man looking at natural food label

What Do Consumers Look for in Food Labels?

Denis Storey
September 14, 2018

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Consumer Reports posed the question to its readers: What is natural, and what does it mean on a food label? This question is on a lot of people’s minds these days. To gain insight into the intricacies of this issue, the Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a national survey of more than 1,000 consumers.

The survey results showed that more than 75% of respondents attribute specific meaning to the word “natural,” including:

  • Something that contains no artificial ingredients, colors, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

  • A product that includes no antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones, in cases of meat or poultry.

The problem, Consumer Reports contends, is that these beliefs are not necessarily true, and the “natural” label is misleading consumers.

What Do Consumers Want?

According to the survey, consumers look for food produced:

  • Locally.

  • In an environmentally friendly way.

  • In proper working conditions.

  • With labels that provide clues to aid in the buying process (see image below).

Consumer Reports has started a petition to ban the use of “natural” food labels. Following is an excerpt:

“Even though the Food and Drug Administration does not object to the use of the term ‘natural’ if ‘nothing artificial or synthetic’ is added, there’s no definition for the term, which essentially means no regulation and no oversight. As a result, ‘natural’ processed foods can include ingredients from nature that are processed into artificial ingredients and might also come from plants grown with toxic pesticides, bioengineered seeds, and chemicals processed with synthetic solvents. Meat labeled as ‘natural’ can come from animals raised with daily doses of antibiotics and other drugs, given artificial growth hormones, fed genetically engineered soy and corn feed, and confined indoors. Consumers believe ‘natural’ should mean something very different. U.S. consumers believe the ‘natural’ label on meat and poultry products should mean the processor didn’t inject the animal with growth hormones (89%), antibiotics and other drugs (81%) and that their feed did not contain genetically engineered organisms (85%) and artificial ingredients (85%). They also think the label should mean chemical-free processing (87%), no toxic pesticides (86%), no artificial ingredients or colors (86%), and no GMOs (85%). Unlike the ‘organic’ label regulated and verified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are no restrictions on how companies raise the animals or what can go into foods labeled ‘natural.’ Too many people believe they’re avoiding toxic pesticides, artificial growth hormones, and GMOs when they buy food labeled ‘natural.’ We need truthful and meaningful labels that inform consumers, not confuse them.”

A Legal Perspective on Natural Labeling

Earlier this year, Antonio Gallegos, of counsel at Greenberg Traurig, shared his insight as a lawyer in the food industry about this very topic.

“You may have picked up on the language that causes much of the fuss – ‘would not normally be expected to be there.’ Whose expectations are the standard of reference? Without a clearly defined standard, consumers and food producers have plenty of room to make their arguments, and consumers have been taking their arguments to court more frequently in the past several years.”

How Can Food Manufacturers Mitigate Risk?

Excerpt from Coffee Talk with Antonio Gallegos: Why All the Fuss About ‘Natural’ Food Claims:

One suggestion is to avoid unqualified claims that a food is natural or all-natural. Instead, focus on the specific ingredients to make a claim such as “Made with Natural Ingredients.” The pink lemonade example in the FDA policy is a good illustration. FDA’s position is that pink lemonade colored with beet juice should not be labeled “All-Natural Pink Lemonade.” However, the policy doesn’t preclude the statement “Pink Lemonade with All-Natural Ingredients.” Of course, you must have a reasonable basis for saying that your ingredients are, in fact, all-natural, which leads to the next suggestion.

Also, avoid using the terms “natural” or “all-natural” unless you’re 100% certain that the food doesn’t contain any GMOs. The FDA continues to stand by its position that there is no valid scientific evidence showing that GMO-containing foods are less safe than non-GMO foods. But labeling these foods as natural has been and will continue to be a favorite target for consumers and class-action lawyers.

No matter how conservative you are, it’s impossible to eliminate the risk of a consumer lawsuit for false and misleading use of the term natural, unless you don’t use it. The key is to understand the legal risks before you claim to make an informed business decision about how to move forward.

TraceGains can help. We’ve teamed up with ESHA Research to provide shared customers with access to DataLink. This solution gives customers running both TraceGains and Genesis to update supplier ingredient data without manually entering amounts by item. See what TraceGains can do for you, and request a demo today.