A recent Consumer Reports study shows that nearly two-thirds of shoppers are being misled to believe the label “natural” on food packages means more than it does — including that the foods are free of GMOs, hormones, pesticides or artificial ingredients. But the truth is, these foods often contain the ingredients and chemicals consumers are trying to avoid.
As an example, some “natural" shredded cheese contains natamycin, a pesticide. And “natural" fruit snacks can contain artificial preservatives like potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate. Consumers shouldn’t be misled in this way, and now there is a campaign to get the U.S. Food & Drug Administration either to fix the label "natural," or ban it altogether. In response to a petition filed by Consumer Reports, the FDA is asking for public comment (through May 10, 2016) on what the word natural should mean on food packaging.
I had a chance to speak with Urvashi Rangan, the executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center, who is leading the organization’s fight for clearer food labeling, about the new study and campaign.
Reynard Loki: What’s the problem with the “natural” label on food products?
Urvashi Rangan: “Natural” is one of the most misleading labels that's out on the marketplace. Year after year when we have asked consumers about what they think it means, they think it means more than it does. We have spent the last 15 years or so reading labels on foods. We've been educating people about what natural doesn't mean for a really long time. We even give that information for free because we believe it’s a public service.
RL: In December, Consumer Reports conducted a national phone survey to assess consumer opinion regarding the labeling of food. What did you find?
UR: With the case of “natural,” with nearly two-thirds of consumers looking to buy that food, and thinking that it means something specific, we've been able to quantify the percentage of consumers who are mislead by the natural claim. In the story, we report what consumer expectations are around natural. There's what they think it means, and a good majority are being misled to think that it means something it doesn't: no GMO's, no artificial ingredients, no pesticides, for example.
Then you ask them what they think it should mean, and almost an overwhelming majority think it should mean no chemicals used during processing, no artificial ingredients, no toxic pesticides, no GMOs. We've been helping to educate consumers about that for a long time. We've kicked that up a little bit in the last two years by really focusing on this particular label as a bad actor.
RL: Have you targeted any specific food brands that are misleading the public with the natural label?
UR: In this latest article we've pointed out seven major brands that are selling products that have a natural label on it, highlighting why it is we think they don't really comport with what people think of as natural, and marrying that to our new survey findings which shows that people continue to be misled by the natural label.
RL: Someone could just look at the ingredients and find out that something's not natural in that food. But it wouldn't list pesticides that may have been used on one or more of the ingredients.
UR: Yeah, that's true. And sometimes it isn’t so easy to figure out if an ingredient is natural. Sometimes you see things like cellulose, a dietary fiber derived from wood pulp. It's a natural compound, but not really something you would think of eating. Yet that can still be found in some things. Xanthan gum comes from a bacterial slime that is chemically extracted. Caramel color is another natural sounding ingredient, but two types are made with caustic ingredients that can create 4-MEI, a potential carcinogen. That isn’t really what we think of having in natural foods.
There are lots of examples where you do not see the chemicals used to extract something on an ingredient label. Pesticides are another example of that. “Natural flavors” and “natural colors” don’t have to disclose the potentially dozens of ingredients in their formulas as they are considered to be proprietary. Things that are called processing aides, or food contact substances or secondary food additives — you will never see them listed as ingredients.
RL: What would you recommend the definition of “natural” to be?
UR: We would love to see it banned. Ideally, when we look at what people think it ought to mean, it comes very close to what people expect from the organic label. Organic is not perfect, but it comes a whole lot closer to providing a meaningful set of standards behind it. Ideally, we don't think the government should waste the public’s money redefining it, by coming up with a new label program.
Organic has been defined. It took 12 years to do it. The government created standards behind it. There's verification required. It's got all of the basic, good fundamental elements in place. We think that the organic label can improve in some ways to meet consumer expectations, and that has a lot to do with the approval process and use of artificial ingredients in “organic” foods. Five percent of organic foods can contain certain artificial ingredients.
What we'd like the government to do is ban the natural label, focus on organic and what really it should mean. If they're going to define it and won't ban it, then defining “natural” for processed foods, which is what FDA oversees, should mean organic and no artificial ingredients. At least that way it cannot mislead consumers because the bar is set high. It would really be reserved for a subset of organic processed food products out on the market.
RL: How prevalent is this issue in the marketplace?
UR: We haven't actually gone and counted how many foods have the natural label. This February, we showcased 25 different products that make natural claims that fall short of consumer expectations and demonstrate through a review of their ingredients exactly how. It's not that hard to find dozens of examples in the supermarket aisles. There have been a number of class action suits filed against companies for using natural labels, whether they contain GMOs, whether they contain artificial preservatives, flavorings, colors, all sorts of things. Those have been tying up the courts. There have been dozens of cases on that.
So far, the government has been slow to act but they do have a mandate to prevent misleading labeling like this so we have petitioned them to ban the label and stop its misleading use. It shouldn’t be so difficult to do.
RL: How have the class action suits turned out?
UR: A lot of them just got settled so they never led to a final determination. In a lot of cases companies have made modifications to get more specific about their natural labeling. That doesn’t really help labeling confusion and consumers can’t necessarily tell what isn’t natural in their product.
RL: So the FDA has never actually defined what the term “natural” should mean?
UR: One court asked the FDA at some point to define it. FDA declined to. They didn't want to define it. It's a shame because without any standards, and with a government agency that's essentially in charge of the gate, there becomes nothing to really enforce. It's become a complete quagmire for the courts — and for consumers too.
That's why with this comment period open — which has been extended to May 10, 2016 — we want as many consumers as possible to weigh in with the FDA. Thousands already have, suggesting that they're not okay with what the FDA is doing or not doing, and that they want FDA to stop the misleading practices of the natural label, one way or the other. You can sign our petition quickly to make your voice heard.
RL: Is this the first time the FDA has had a public comment period in regard to the natural label?
UR: Yes. We were cited as one of the reasons in the background for filing a petition with them to ban it. Grocery Manufacturers Association is cited as another group petitioning them. In some ways the FDA is responding to the growing public awareness and pressure, around this label. They are opening up this hearing period if you will, to get comments from the public on what they do or don't think natural ought to or ought not to mean.
RL: Does the FDA have the regulatory authority to ban the natural label without having to go through Congress?
UR: We noted in the petition that we filed in 2014 that we think they do have that authority. The FDA is supposed to not allow misleading advertising and labeling, misleading and deceptive uses of labeling. We think that the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act already gives them authority to stop that. We think they ought to use that authority to do it.
RL: Will the USDA have any say in the matter?
UR: Yes. We filed another, similar petition with the USDA, to ban the natural label on their side. The Federal Meat Inspection Act gives them the same authority to prevent misleading and deceptive claims on products. We petition them too, under that authority, to ban the term. There are other labels on the market that get much closer to what “natural” ought to be. “Natural” labeling on meat is also a vague and misleading term for consumers. We believe USDA should also take action.
RL: What about legislative action?
UR: There have been several members of Congress who have been interested in hearing about this issue. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), for example, have been instrumental in organic laws and regulations. They're certainly interested in anything that might be undercutting that significantly.
There's also Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who is very interested on the animal side of things. His office has been really interested in trying to investigate what they can do around the natural and humane labeling of meat. It is definitely something that Congress can consider, and has been chewing on to some degree. Ideally, they would just like the agency to do something about this.
RL: Have states weighed in?
UR: We have had some inquiries from the New York State Governor’s Office regarding truthful labeling. In fact, New York State has been interested in truthful labeling on other things in the past, and has been trying to take a lead on cleaning ingredient disclosure. I wouldn't be surprised if we hear from some of the other states on this as well.
RL: Could state legislation effectively change the national standard if companies don’t want to either make state-specific labels or withdraw from selling a product in an entire state?
UR: It's really hard to say what companies will do. If we watch what happens in Vermont around GMO labels, it will be interesting to see how that thing unpacks itself. It's certainly a pressure point. The bigger the state that would do something like that, the more pressure that's on a company to tip over, in terms of making a full change. It's hard to say if just Vermont, or just Maine, or something like that did it, whether they would. Even sometimes when California does something, it doesn't necessarily change it for the whole country. But the potential for that to happen is certainly there.
RL: Does the increased public interest in the GMO labeling issue make now a particularly good time to investigate the natural label?
UR: There's definitely an intersection. It often gets tangled up in the GMO issue because, rightly so, people don't think GMO's are natural — they are made in a lab. Whether a product that contains GMO's should be allowed to be labeled “natural” is the subject of great controversy. The Grocery Manufacturers Association thinks they should be. But there are a lot more things people expect out of “natural,” in addition to not having GMO ingredients. Consumers may also mistakenly believe that the “non GMO” label means no toxic pesticides or organically produced — but that’s not necessarily true.
RL: How has the food industry responded?
UR: It's singularly interesting, actually. For all those products that we showcase, we reached out to all those companies. If we didn't hear from them, we reached out to them several different times. We really received a range of responses from companies.
Some of them said, ‘We don't actually have to tell you about that. That's proprietary information about how we produce a flavoring, what the source is, and what we use to process it,’ or, ‘We're not going to provide that information to you.’
Some companies said, ‘Yes, we use those things. but it's all legal, so it's fine." A company like Wesson just said, ‘Yes, we use GMO oils, and we extract them with chemicals. We're allowed to do that and call it natural.’
We also learned about companies that are no longer using the natural label, as Kashi told us they were planning,. We learned that during our investigation as we had purchased a Kashi product with a “natural” label. Pacific Foods is another company that has also publicly said they are not going to use that label anymore. Gus Soda is also telling us in our inquiries that they have dropped the natural claim from their soda. That's been pretty interesting.
RL: What about other food labels?
UR: Like natural, we looked at other labels like organic, and free range, and all sorts of labels. We have over 200 labels in our database at greenerchoices.org. People can literally read how we rate all of these labels. We rate them like we rate products, by sending them through a similar set of criteria. Are they meaningful? Are they verified? Are they consistent in meaning? Were they transparent? Were they made with broad industry input? Are they independent labels? We rate on all those factors.
Over the last couple of years we've actually looked at the first criteria, are they meaningful, and really broken that down into really discreet standards. We look at things like animal welfare standards. We must have at least 10 or 12 different criteria under that that we look at. We have work and welfare standards. We also have environmental sustainability standards. Things like pesticide use, sewage sludge, fertilizers, direct use on the farm, those types of things.
We can literally rate many of the labels on food against all of those criteria as well. There's lots of gradation out there on the marketplace. There are some labels that are really doing a good job with a set of credible standards behind them. They've got a verification arm. They're doing a good job at meeting a lot of those criteria. They vary, but there's at least a good set of good labels out there. The unfortunate part is, that whole market is muddied by claims that don't have to mean anything, but sound like they do. Natural is one of those claims that we feel really mucks up the marketplace. It undermines the competition and success of credible labels which cheats consumers.
RL: It seems that consumer are becoming more savvy.
UR: We've been working on issues where people are misled by labeling for an awfully long time. One thing we've learned over the last 15 years of doing this work is that people care more and more about their food, and how it's produced. They care that workers are treated fairly and animals too. The majority don’t want their foods made with chemicals, pesticides or artificial ingredients and they care that the environment isn’t polluted from food production. They also have expectations around certain labels. The natural label falls so very short of those.
That's why it's a focus of ours right now. There's really been no better time to parlay that with consumers whose awareness is growing, their wants are growing, their needs are growing, they want more sustainable production practices in the foods that they buy.
RL: How can concerned consumers get involved?
UR: We want to at least try and get as many people to weigh in by May 10th as possible. It's really important that the FDA hear from as many consumers as possible. We're also going to be submitting signatures that we've generated on petitions that we've had up. We already have 200,000 signatures collected on just banning the claim altogether. It does matter for our government agencies to know how many consumers are unhappy with the way things are. Hopefully, we can get some traction.
And if somebody in Congress wanted to take this up as an issue, we would certainly welcome that.