The truth about scammy food labels — and what to do about it

By | February 9th, 2016

When you go grocery shopping, do you make a beeline for the “organic” or “natural” foods section as soon as you’re in the door?

If you do, you’re in good company with more than half of American shoppers, according to a recent survey.

But there’s disagreement about the words organic and natural and what they mean to consumers. While 62 percent of consumers already buy food labeled natural, the overwhelming majority (87 percent) of these consumers would pay even more for natural food if the label met their expectations, according to the survey.

Respondents were divided on whether or not they believed that the label natural is verified — that is, whether or not foods have to satisfy specific standards to qualify for marketing using that label. And, as with many situations involving marketing, there is a big disconnect between perceptions and reality — in this case, a huge one.

Consumers themselves want more stringent labeling requirements, according to the survey:

Many consumers think that the natural label on packaged/processed foods currently means

  • that no toxic pesticides were used (63 percent),
  • no artificial materials or chemicals were used during processing (62 percent),
  • no artificial ingredients or colors were used (61 percent),
  • and no GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were used (60 percent).

An even greater percentage feel that this label should mean that

  • no toxic pesticides were used (84 percent),
  • no artificial materials or chemicals were used during processing (85 percent),
  • no artificial ingredients or colors were used (84 percent),
  • and no GMOs were used (82 percent).

Consumers are even more stringent when it comes to what they want from the “organic” label on packaged/processed foods. Many consumers think that the organic label on packaged/processed foods currently means that

  • no toxic pesticides were used (77 percent),
  • no artificial ingredients or colors were used (73 percent),
  • no artificial materials or chemicals were used during processing (72 percent)
  • and no GMOs were used (72 percent).

An even greater percentage think that this label should mean that

  • no toxic pesticides were used (89 percent),
  • no artificial ingredients or colors were used (86 percent),
  • no artificial materials or chemicals were used during processing (86 percent),
  • and no GMOs were used (85 percent).

Wow. Talk about strict standards.

And yet, as of this writing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has an extremely limited definition of the term natural and how it applies to food. According to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act (FFDCA), “a food shall be deemed to be misbranded” if “its labeling is false or misleading” (21 USC §343(a)(1)).

But according to a recent petition by Consumers Union, the publisher of the survey:

The current policy regarding natural used by the FDA, as stated in a 1993 policy, is “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.” Yet there is no formal definition and no rule, no verification and virtually no oversight and enforcement of the FFDCA’s requirement for labeling that is truthful and not misleading. We believe that the difference is drastic between the FDA’s extremely limited policy statement regarding natural labeling and what people think the natural label should mean.

Think about that: The public thinks that there are stringent standards for labeling foods as natural or organic and is willing to pay more for foods that meet them, and yet there are very few standards at all — with almost no enforcement.

Does that spell “invitation to scam” to you? Consumers Union thinks so.

Consumers Union is petitioning the FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to issue interpretive rules prohibiting the use of the word natural as a label for food items.

If the agencies issue the rule, it will be an ironic (perhaps historic) convergence of what the market, consumers, and the government want: not something we see too much.

And it will be a good thing for all.

Is food labeling containing the words natural or organic deceptive?

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  • sirwired

    To make things even more fun, things that legally qualify as “Natural colors/flavors” may be so chemically processed that you’d never even guess their origins, while “artificial flavors” may be nothing more than synthetically-produced, but otherwise completely identical to their fully-natural counterparts (only cheaper and more chemically-pure.)

    So, “Natural Flavoring” in, say, a chicken product may have originated from the solvent-extracted essence of some random plant, treated with acid, distilled, reacted with other “natural” chemicals, etc. (And, by the way, contain no meat.) OTOH, artificial banana flavoring is so easy to produce, it’s a common lab exercise in high-school chemistry class, and it is absolutely identical in every way to the most distinctive flavor that makes a banana taste like a banana.

    I know what I’d rather have in MY food…

  • AJPeabody

    As of now, the terms “natural” and “organic” are legally essentially undefined. They are not deceptive. Rather they are meaningless.

    As an aside, strychnine is both natural and organic by any definition.

  • Tanya

    To me the term organic has, and until there are actual standards will, mean that a company has a great marketing team and the average consumer will pay more for the word.

    Cyanide is also natural and organic, in the days of past, it was used as a pesticide. So were a number of other “natural and organic” substances that we would all be aghast to find in our food now.

  • Rebecca

    I think the problem is more that there is so much processed food. I understand it’s a convenience, and in a time crunch is easier. But really just using “natural” foods and making it yourself is the only way you actually know what’s in it. For example, chicken nuggets. You can buy a frozen bag of “all natural” chicken nuggets. Or you can cut up chicken, dip it in egg and breading, and make your own. I make my own. It honestly doesn’t take much time at all. We’re talking maybe 10 minutes to prepare the same amount that are in a bag, that can be frozen and a few taken out at a time. My daughter doesn’t usually like the processed version of a food, because we normally don’t eat it. She won’t eat chicken nuggets out of a bag, or mac and cheese out of a box, etc, because the “real” kind honestly does taste better. And in almost all cases, it really doesn’t take much extra time. I thought it would, but I’ve found it honestly doesn’t. I don’t make my own noodles, for example. Not worth the work. Of course there are exceptions when it’s a huge pain. But it normally isn’t.

  • jae1

    I voted yes, but for some rather contrarian reasons. First, organic is deceptive because it’s mostly a scam. There is a federal definition, but most people don’t understand it. They don’t realize that there are quite a few pesticides approved for and used on, organic food, many of which are considerably more toxic per unit than many of those used in currently standard agriculture. ALL pesticides are toxic to something, or they wouldn’t be used, but many that are toxic to insects or particular plants aren’t especially toxic to humans, or are voluntarily consumed. Nicotine is a pesticide, as is caffeine. Both are consumed by people anyway. Copper sulfate and rotenone are organic-approved pesticides, and both are extremely and broadly toxic to humans. They do leave residue on the plants, so if you’re buying organic, chances are you’re eating them.

    Natural isn’t particularly well-defined. Natural flavors includes the category of “reaction flavors,” which are flavors produced in the course of preparing the food, whether by the cooking itself (think of all that delicious caramelizing that occurs on onions and meats while they’re cooking), or by the combination of reactive ingredients. It also includes flavors chemically extracted from foodstuffs and then used by themselves in other foods. Beyond that, natural doesn’t mean much, but people think it means the food is somehow more wholesome. Neither natural nor organic means the food is any more nutritious than other food.

    I won’t start in on what’s wrong with the anti-GMO movement. That’s for another time.

  • sirwired

    What does “processed food” mean? How much “processing” must a food undergo before it’s no longer considered “fresh” or “home-made” or “real”?

    Except for raw food, all food undergoes “processing” before consumption.

    I’m not saying that processed food is tastier, better for you, etc. Just that you have to make a decision as to what sorts of processing make food lower quality, vs. what sorts of processing are acceptable.

    (That said, I had some frozen “Buffalo bites” for the Superbowl this year and they were beyond vile. That chicken is rolling over in it’s grave for being turned into such a nearly-inedible food product.)

    Food for thought…

  • Rebecca

    By processed, I mean convenience foods. I completely agree with what you’re saying actually. For me, it’s just a matter of doing the best I can with what’s available. Like using using actual butter instead of margarine or oil. I’m not naive enough to think that almost all food isn’t processed somehow.

  • KarlaKatz

    My grandmother used to caution: “Natural? Hah! Arsenic and lead are both ‘natural’, but I don’t want them in my food!”

  • David___1

    The problem is, most people are dumb. Yeah, I said it dumb. They equate “natural” and “organic” to mean “good” for them. Crude oil is natural. Haven’t tried it, but I’m guessing it doesn’t taste good. The leaves of rhubarb are natural. So is the death that will follow after eating them. There are a lot of natural things that are bad, bad, bad for us. And “organic”? Sure, it needs to meet certain government standards, but being “organic” doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Cook a piece of organic beef in organic butter, smother it in a heavy sauce of organic cream. It has the same calories and fat as the “conventional” version. I forget who said something like this, invent me something foolproof and I’ll find you a bigger fool.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Ha! I think Chris would’ve liked your grandmother. :-)

  • AJPeabody

    You can make something foolproof, but nothing is damn-fool-proof.

  • John McDonald

    what a croc.
    Oxymorons ?
    A pesticide that’s not toxic is not really going to kill any pests, so not a pesticide(the word means to kill pests doesn’t it)
    Arsenic & Uranium are totally natural, but not going to start eating them anytime soon.
    Words healthy & nutritious are 2 other well abused words. What do they actually mean ?
    A good way to get more confused is too let some dodgy govt committee decide.
    Get real people. Organic ? Does that mean used human waste fertilising plants. Can’t get much more organic than human waste(talking #2’s)
    Free range eggs are another con. What does that mean ?
    Do you really want to be paying extra so some private “food police” certify something is organic/natural etc. Seriously how stupid are people ?

  • John McDonald

    we spray around insect sprays in the home, like they are totally safe & wonder why we get cancer. Insect sprays are designed to kill insects & what do they do to humans after prolonged exposure ? Who knows ? No one knows for sure.

    If you think they are 100% safe, why don’t you drink them then ?

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    As a scientist, I prefer GMOs to the “natural” way most of our food variants were generated. GMOs are often specific, targeted changes to single genes, that are then tested on a number of dimensions including safety. “Natural” foods like ruby red grapefruit (chemical mutagen), and Calrose rice (radioactivity) have unknown numbers of changes to their genetic makeup. That doesn’t even address that natural sports (mutations) that make up almost every food crop we eat.