The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) appears to be in the early stages of finally creating a definition of the term “natural” for labeling human food products. Noting “the changing landscape of food ingredients and production,” not to mention three Citizen Petitions requesting a definition and one asking the FDA to prohibit the use of the term in food labeling, the FDA is asking the public for information and comments on the use of “natural” on human food. Mintel research shows that among America’s free-from food consumers, health issues compel purchases, with consumers likely to equate healthy with “natural,” “clean” or “real” foods.

No FDA rule currently defines the term “natural,” but the agency has a “longstanding policy concerning the use of ‘natural’ in human food labeling.” The term indicates that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives) has been included or added to a food that “would not normally be expected to be in that food.” The FDA admits the policy does not address food production, processing or manufacturing, nor does it assess the use of pesticides, pasteurization or irradiation. Further, the agency notes it “did not consider whether the term…should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.”

The FDA is requesting public comment on such questions as:

  • Whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural”
  • If so, how the agency should define the term
  • How the agency should determine the appropriate use of the term on food labels

40% of US natural product purchasers would like stricter regulations regarding natural and organic claims

The FDA has long had a definition surrounding the use of “organic” on human food, even if its precise definition appears lost on most consumers. When asked to identify the key attributes associated with organic versus natural claims, consumers are virtually equally likely to regard both claims as nutritious, trustworthy, suitable for the whole family and gourmet, according to Mintel’s Organic Food and Beverage Shoppers US 2015 report. Only in a few areas does an organic claim appear to bear more weight: pesticide-free (41% of consumers attribute that quality to products labeled “100% organic” vs 25% who say “natural” products are pesticide-free); preservative-free (35% for “100% organic” vs 30% for “natural” and hormone-free (33% vs 23%).

According to research, 40% of natural product purchasers would like stricter regulations regarding natural and organic claims. With a lack of awareness of the rules surrounding organic foods and beverages, consumers may grow increasingly skeptical products bearing the claim. Developing a clear, well-defined and enforced rule for the term “natural” could have a side effect of actually improving consumer understanding of the organic claim, as well, even if numerous brands bearing “natural” on their package labels would be forced to adjust their product or labeling.

Billy Roberts is a Senior Food and Drink Analyst at Mintel, based in the Chicago office. Billy previously worked as Executive Editor covering consumer insights and new food and beverage trends with a leading trade publication.

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