What is the definition of ‘natural’ foods? Consumers want to know

After decades of debate there remains no generally accepted definition of a “natural” food product. Regulatory agencies have refused to settle the issue but may be under new pressure from consumer lawsuits, according to a new study in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

“Consumers don’t agree on a definition either, yet clearly believe that ‘natural’ is important,” writes author Ross D. Petty (Babson College). “In 2009, 30% of newly launched foods claimed to be natural but by 2013 this dropped to 22%, possibly due to an increase in the number of consumer lawsuits. Lawyers are increasingly willing to take cases which regulatory agencies have abandoned.”

In 1973, the Federal Trade Commission warned that no other area of national health was as abused by deception as nutrition, but by 1983 the FTC had given up on the issue of defining “natural” products. The FDA required in 1977 that artificial flavors be identified as such, but refused to define “natural.” When federal district courts in 2014 questioned the legality of promoting genetically modified ingredients as natural, the FDA declined to give an opinion. The US Department of Agriculture fared better, requiring that “natural” meats be free of substances such as artificial flavoring. The industry itself sporadically addressed the “natural” problem, with the Council of Better Business Bureaus advising Nutrasweet to cease claiming it was “made from natural ingredients.”

Industry progress in general, however, has been limited. With no regulations to fall back on, consumers have begun resorting to legal action, petitioning the FDA in 2001 to act against “natural” food products that hid genetically modified ingredients.

Next came the “Sugar Wars,” with the Sugar Association and Equal suing Splenda for claiming it was natural. Splenda resisted, and as of April 2014, no natural community class action lawsuit has actually gone to trial.

Do “Natural” and “Organic” Mean the Same Thing?
When you buy food labeled “natural,” what exactly are you getting? Well, when it sits on a food label in the US, the word “natural” has no regulated definition.

“Natural” can mean any number of different things, depending on where in the US you are, who the food manufacturer is and what store is carrying the product. In fact, the FDA has said it’s okay to call high-fructose corn syrup “natural.”

What is the definition of 'natural' foods Consumers want to know But federal regulations strictly define the term “organic.” When you see “organic” on the label, you know that food was made with a set of farming and production practices defined and regulated, in great detail, by the USDA.

While “natural” assures you of little, “organic” tells you you’re buying food made without the use of toxic persistent pesticides, GMOs, antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, sewage sludge or irradiation.

“Though natural food lawsuits to date have disappointed, they encourage marketers to drop the claim of being natural or reformulate their products to avoid future lawsuits. Perhaps this will persuade the FDA or FTC to consider creating, finally, a definition for the meaning of natural,” concludes the author.


Ross D. Petty. “Natural” Claims in Food Advertising: Policy Implications of Filling the Regulatory Void with Consumer Class Action Lawsuits.” Forthcoming in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. For more information, contact Ross D. Petty or Mary-Ann Twist.


Mary-Ann Twist
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