Grocery stores carve out entire aisles dedicated to so-called “natural” food, but while a survey found 59 percent of shoppers look for foods labeled “natural,” Consumer Reports says it’s essentially a meaningless claim.
“The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t adequately define what ‘natural’ means, so a manufacturer can make the claim even when a product contains artificial ingredients,” said Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., of Consumer Reports.
So Kikkoman soy sauce can boast that being naturally brewed while containing synthetic sodium benzoate, a preservative.
Bosco Chocolate Syrup brags that it’s “All Natural” but still lists high fructose corn syrup -- the highly processed sweetener -- as the first ingredient.
Crystal Light Natural Lemonade sounds wholesome, but it contains things like maltodextrin, artificial coloring agents and BHA, a synthetic preservative.
Whole Foods’ own Dr. Snap soda, which proudly calls itself all natural, also contains artificial caramel coloring, which Consumer Reports tests found can contain 4-MEI -- a possible carcinogen.
Jody Rohlena of ShopSmart Magazine says there are ways to detect a misleading “natural” label. Watch out for wording like “Made with Natural Ingredients,” “Naturally Flavored” and “Naturally Brewed,” terms that can make food sound wholesome, even if it’s not.
“And don’t take labels at face value,” Rohlena said. “You always want to look at the ingredients list. If it contains a bunch of things you can’t pronounce, you probably want to do a little more homework.”
Consumer Reports suggests looking for the word "organic" instead. That term is at least well-regulated on labels.
We reached out to all four companies mentioned in the story, and two responded.
Kraft Foods (maker of Crystal Light Natural Lemonade): “…the word natural refers to flavor – ‘natural lemonade flavor with other natural flavor’ on the front of the package. Our label complies with FDA regulations, which permit the use of ‘natural’ to describe flavoring in some cases. At Kraft, we take great pride in making quality products and marketing them responsibly.”
Whole Foods (maker of Dr. Snap soda): “Whole Foods has always promoted health through healthy eating education. To that end, while we applaud Consumer Reports’ efforts at educating consumers to make healthier choices, we believe that naturally occurring ingredients used as a coloring are not artificial in the same way as purely synthetic ingredients like Red #3 or Yellow #5 (which are not acceptable at Whole Foods Market). Caramel color is made primarily of heated/caramelized sugars. As an example, beet juice is also a natural ingredient that is used for coloring. As always we continue to monitor any emerging research.”