‘Natural’ is popular, but what does it mean?

By Mike Barnett

So if food is labeled “natural,”  is the stuff I’ve been eating “unnatural?”

I admit I don’t always eat right but as far as I know the things I eat are just as “natural” as the products with that label on it.

I must admit I buy “natural” beef at times. But it’s always a function of price and how that particular steak lines up quality- and marbling-wise alongside its “unnatural” cousin.

Nonetheless, retail sales of food labeled “natural” totaled more than $40 billion over the last 12 months, according to Doane’s Agricultural Report, with a survey indicating that more than half of Americans look for “all natural products” when food shopping.

Seems to me consumers are being hoodwinked by marketers because there’s no definition of what “natural” is. You look at something labeled organic and you know that product has met strict government standards to legally use that term on the label. “Natural” means pretty much whatever anyone wants it to mean.

I hear a bill has been introduced in the Senate that would require EPA to establish a standard nutrition labeling system that would include a clear definition of what qualifies as “natural.”

And that opens up another can of worms.

For example, will the beef I referred to earlier qualify as “natural” if it was fed GMO corn? If it was fed non-GMO corn and insecticides were used to protect the crop, does that qualify? If the cattle grazed on land that had herbicide applied to control weeds at some time in the past, can that beef be classified as “natural?” I can begin to sense an impossible task.

If the Senate tasks EPA to jump into this mud pit, they might as well go ahead and define sustainable. That’s another buzzword with no clear definition that marketers love to use on a label to make a buck.

Or maybe EPA will combine the two and come up with a Naturally Sustainable label.

Their research could be fairly simple. Just ask those farm families who have made their living for three, four or five generations on the same land. What they’re doing seems natural to me. And if practices they use to protect their land, conserve clean water, grow quality crops and livestock and continue to make a profit are not sustainable, then we might as well give up and start paying a whole lot more for food.

Stick that on your label.

Mike Barnett

Director of Publications
Texas Farm Bureau
I’m a firm believer that farmers and ranchers will continue to meet the needs of a growing world population by employing equal measures of common sense, conservation and technology.
Follow Mike on Twitter and Facebook.

One Response to “‘Natural’ is popular, but what does it mean?”

  1. I agree with you. The label “natural” means nothing at all, although it does at least get me to turn the package over and read the ingredients list. What drives me nuts are packages that are labelled “whole wheat” or “whole grain” on the front of the package but when you read the ingredients you see that while there is “whole wheat” in the ingredients, it’s five down the list with “enriched flour” being the first ingredient. Still, if you know to read the ingredients, you won’t be fooled into buying it, you’ll just lose a few minutes of your time.

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