Because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration still hasn't issued an official definition of "natural," consumers have different understandings of what the term means. To avoid confusion, food manufacturers shouldn't use the term in their marketing, according to a trend insight report from flavor manufacturer FONA International.
FONA found that new product launches making "all-natural claims" have fallen by 51% during the past five years, reflecting a growing level of consumer skepticism.
The flavor company added that its recent consumer survey found 40% of respondents don't trust a "natural" claim on a food label, and 45% read labels to decide whether the natural claim fits their personal definition of what "natural" means. Nearly 48% prefer that food firms no longer use the term, and shift instead to claims such as "no preservatives" or others citing just one attribute of a product.
FONA said that companies have been turning away from "all-natural" claims in new product launches in the top 20 food and beverage categories in order to avoid legal tangles. There have been some expensive missteps in this area. In 2014, General Mills settled a lawsuit over use of the phrase "all-natural" on some of its Nature Valley products. The agreement prevents the company from describing products that contain high fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin as "natural."
In 2015, Diamond Foods settled a lawsuit by agreeing to compensate consumers who bought Kettle Brand products that contained a "natural" or similar label in the U.S. between Jan. 3, 2010, and Feb. 24, 2015.
Despite the amorphous nature of the term "natural," consumers seem to have an intuitive feel for what it means. According to a recent online survey of 5,175 people from 10 countries by GNT Group, respondents said that in order to be considered "natural," food products must be free from preservatives as well as artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners.
Besides "natural" and "all natural," other confusing on-pack claims include "clean" and "healthy." The latter is another sticky area that can get a company in trouble. In 2015, FDA reported that at least four varieties of KIND snack bars were violating their ability to print "healthy" on their product labels because they contained too much saturated fat to be considered healthy.
The agency reversed its decision on KIND's "healthy" claim in May 2016 and vowed to take another look at the definition following a petition put forward by KIND.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb indicated last fall that use of the term could be decided on a case-by-case basis from "a public-health standpoint." However, he hasn't publicly weighed in yet about how and when FDA will decide on the term "natural."