You see it everywhere now in the grocery store: The word “natural.”

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Natural eggs. Natural yogurt. Natural spaghetti noodles. Natural chicken tenders.

But what exactly does this mean?

A major nonprofit found the discrepancy between what consumers think “natural” means and what is actually in foods labeled as such is misleading enough it is now asking the government to ban it from appearing on grocery store shelves.

“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,” Consumer Reports said in a petition to ban the “natural” label. “As a result, ‘natural’ processed foods can include ingredients from nature that are processed into artificial ingredients and may also come from plants grown with toxic pesticides, bioengineered seeds and chemicals processed with synthetic solvents. Meat labeled as ‘natural’ can come from animals that were raised with daily doses of antibiotics and other drugs, given artificial growth hormones, fed genetically engineered soy and corn feed and other artificial ingredients and continually confined indoors.”

A recent consumer survey from the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that most U.S. consumers believe that a natural label on meat products would mean that an animal wasn’t given hormones or antibiotics, among other things. Natural to the majority of consumers meant that there was no use of toxic pesticides; that the food was without artificial ingredients or colors; and the product didn’t include genetically modified organisms.

Notice how these baby snacks say they are "naturally flavored with other natural flavors." Consumer Reports argues that calling things natural on food products should be banned because it leads people to believe things about the product that might not be true. (Image source: Josh/Flickr)

Notice how these baby snacks say they are “naturally flavored with other natural flavors.” Consumer Reports argues that calling things natural on food products should be banned because it leads people to believe things about the product that might not be true. (Image source: Josh/Flickr)

“Our findings show consumers expect much more from the ‘natural’ food label,” Dr. Urvashi Rangan, executive director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports, said. “It’s misleading, confusing and deceptive.”

The label “organic” is regulated by the Department of Agriculture, but, in contrast, Consumer Reports said that “there are no restrictions on how the animals were raised or what can go into foods labeled ‘natural.’”

Currently, the FDA follows a policy set in the early 1990s, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:

[FDA] has not objected to the use of the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Use of the term “natural” is not permitted in a product’s ingredient list, with the exception of the phrase “natural flavorings.”

Given its findings about consumer perception of the label compared to what is actually in these foods or used during processing, the Consumer Reports is urging the USDA and the FDA to “drop the misleading ‘natural’ label from food once and for all!”

Watch this video from the group about decoding the “natural” label:

The battle against calling certain foods “natural” — or at least awareness about it being potentially misleading — is not entirely new. Many have been calling out foods commonly labeled as natural — granola bars, salad dressing and honey to name a few — that don’t adhere to what most consumers consider truly natural.

Check out the full petition to ban the “natural” label led by Consumer Reports and TakePart.

(H/T: NPR)

Front page image via Shutterstock.