An online survey from Label Insight showed 53% of U.S. consumers would be prompted to buy a product sporting a label claim of "natural." The January survey of 1,000 adults aged 18 and older asked which loosely regulated claims would be most likely to influence consumers' purchasing choices.
Label Insight noted there are 21,838 foods and beverages in its database that have "all natural" claims on their packaging. However, there is no regulated definition of the term, so "natural" can mean a wide range of things — including not containing artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners, artificial preservatives or added colors.
The survey also found 51% of consumers were influenced by the term "no preservatives," with age playing a role in how strongly they felt. More baby boomers — 63% — would be motivated to purchase items with that claim than Generation X or millennial consumers, at 46% and 41%, respectively. Other terms attracting consumers include "no high fructose corn syrup," "low sugar," "antibiotic free," "free range" and "grass fed."
Label Insight said these survey results show consumers continue to be concerned about whether the products they purchase are clean and transparent, and that their purchasing decisions tend to follow those values — even when the label claims they look for aren't clearly defined.
"[T]hese particular claims we surveyed are loosely regulated by the government, meaning that consumers need to advocate for transparency and accuracy in labeling. It's also worth noting that in our own analysis of these terms, far more CPG brands could legitimately be using these marketing claims on thousands of products in order to better meet the consumer demand for transparency," Dagan Xavier, senior vice president of data and co-founder of Label Insight, said in a release.
The term "natural" on food labels really doesn't mean anything specific, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been asked to both define it and to prohibit the term. The agency opened a docket for public comment on a definition, and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said last year that defining the term is a priority. However, given Gottlieb's abrupt resignation last week, it's unclear how the issue will progress.
The FDA had been asked so many times about it that the agency had posted this concise statement:
"From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances."
Because of lingering confusion and growing skepticism of the term among consumers, FONA International has suggested manufacturers forego using "natural" in their marketing.
Several companies have run into trouble using the term on their products. 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.” And, 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.
It might help food and beverage manufacturers and marketers — and, of course, consumers — if the FDA would come up with an official definition for "natural," although it would be difficult to do so in a way that covers every aspect of the term. But as long as there isn't one, manufacturers are likely to continue using "natural" on their products, and consumers will continue to gravitate toward it, even though it has no specific meaning.