In Our View: It’s Just Not Natural

Time for federal government to crack down on misleading food labeling

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he odds are that the phrase caveat emptor — “let the buyer beware” — was not intended for items such as Cheetos. And yet the Latin warning for consumers now finds itself at a strange intersection with the tasty yet finger-discoloring snack food.

That’s because one variation of Cheetos ranks among the seemingly countless products that can be found on store shelves with the eye-catching word “natural” emblazoned on its packaging. Yes, a certain variety of the snack boasts of having “no preservatives, no artificial flavors, no artificial colors.” Those might be valid claims, yet we are perplexed in trying to figure out which plant yields all-natural Cheetos dust, and we are confused by the liberal use of the word “natural” in modern food products.

It turns out the confusion is not ours alone. A recent survey from the Consumer Reports National Research center revealed that nearly 60 percent of shoppers look for the term “natural” when they shop for food, mostly because they believe that “natural” foods provide health benefits for them and their families. “About two-thirds believe it means a processed food has no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms, and more than 80 percent believe that is should mean those things,” Consumer Reports writes.

In truth, the word “natural” on food packaging means almost nothing. The Food and Drug Administration has never developed a definition for the term or guidelines for which products may use it. “Our findings show consumers expect much more from the ‘natural’ food label,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, executive director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports. “It’s misleading, confusing, and deceptive.” According to USA Today, both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture allow food producers to use the word “natural” on labels “as long as nothing artificial or synthetic has been added ‘that would not normally be expected to be in the food.’ ” But that policy is informal, and it has been in place since 1993 — a period that has seen vast changes in how food is processed and produced.

Surely, it is time for federal agencies to properly define what is natural in food products and what is not. Consumers deserve better than to have companies rely upon a meaningless marketing gimmick couched in subterfuge and misleading language. Consumer Reports, in fact, has launched a campaign for an outright ban of the word “natural” on food packaging. Rangan said: “With ‘natural,’ any manufacturer can pretty much stick it on their package. It doesn’t mean very much.”

At this point, it should be noted that “natural” is different from “organic” labels on food products. The organic designation does, indeed, include certain guidelines that must be followed in the producing and processing of food items. And it should be noted that the surest way to avoid unnatural foods is to buy whole foods such as fruits and vegetables rather than prepackaged products. Beets might not be the most flavorful food to some palates, but at least you can rest assured they won’t come covered in Cheetos dust.

The truth is that almost all products have been altered or processed by the time they land on store shelves, and modern food production bears no resemblance to an all-natural state. As Cambridge geneticist Ottoline Leyser notes, it is time to buck the notion that “anything natural is good, and anything unnatural is bad.” It also is time for consumers to put a little thought into the hype about “natural” foods. As the old saying goes, caveat emptor.