FD Buyer: What Is ‘Natural,’ Anyway?

Mar 03, 2011

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary
of a current article from Frozen & Dairy Buyer magazine.

At long
last, a definition for "natural" products may be coming.
No, not from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but from the Natural Products
Association in Washington.

The association already has certification programs
in place for natural personal care and home care products and hopes to introduce
a certification program for natural foods later this year, according to scientific
and regulatory affairs manager Cara Welch, Ph.D. "It’s a big project
because standards will vary by category," she explains. "But we
hope to have the first group out this year."

One reason organic growth
is expected to resume is that it’s clearly
defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture while natural is not. So, while
organic buyers can rest assured that products certified by the USDA meet certain
criteria, buyers of natural products can’t always be sure what they’re
getting. Consequently, the term seems to have lost some of its appeal.

Sterl, president of Rustic Crust, Pittsfield, N.H., notes that focus groups
recently told his company that they believe large manufacturers in particular
can find ways to call their products all-natural even when they aren’t.
As a result, consumers said they prefer products labeled "absolutely
no chemicals" or "free of preservatives" because those attributes
in particular coincide with their definition of natural.

Although he hates
the idea of more government involvement because it could make things more difficult
for small companies already doing natural right, Mr. Sterl says a legal definition
of the term might make shopping a little easier for consumers, especially those
not well-educated about natural foods.

But then again, "Consumers have
become savvier and more aware of ingredients" that
have no place in a natural product, said Laura Trust, owner and president of
SJB Bagel Makers of Boston, maker of the all-natural frozen brand, Finagle
a Bagel. "Manufacturers can include whatever callouts they like on their
products," she adds, but it’s up to consumers to determine whether
or not they’re telling the whole truth — a challenge she believes
they’re up to.

Other manufacturers think third-party certification is
the way to go because it allows consumers to easily identify products whose
attributes match up with what they’re looking for in a natural food.
For example, said Chris Testa, president of Blue Marble Brands, Providence,
R.I., more than 500 of his company’s
SKUs are enrolled in the Non-GMO Project, which carefully scrutinizes a product’s
ingredients before offering its stamp of approval.

"It’s often done in conjunction with an all-natural or organic
label to remove any ambiguity that exists around either term, but particularly
natural," he
explains. "Whenever you can get that assurance from a third party, it
has the same effect as the USDA organic logo."

Discussion Questions: How should definitions around “natural” foods be resolved? Are consumers becoming savvy enough to gauge ’natural’ through their own understanding of ingredients?

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10 Comments on "FD Buyer: What Is ‘Natural,’ Anyway?"

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Geoffrey Igharo
Geoffrey Igharo
11 years 2 months ago

Shouldn’t be that complicated: “Natural” should mean that none of the ingredients have been chemically processed or altered. If any of the ingredients could not have been created in your kitchen using nothing but your oven, rangetop and/or a blender or kitchen machine, that’s probably a good sign that we are getting out of the territory of natural.

If anything in the product came from an oil refinery or came in contact with a substance that you wouldn’t be advised to at least comfortably taste without risk, then again its a good tip off that you don’t want to be playing with a “natural label.”

Matthew Keylock
Matthew Keylock
11 years 2 months ago

This is definitely a tough topic. Manufacturers are continuously looking for ways to communicate benefits that will resonate well with customers and terms like “natural,” “pure,” “fresh,” etc. can all be very helpful. Having consistency and integrity around the definition of these to help the end customer is a great goal, but I fear there could be so many different definitions that they ultimately create confusion.

Customers are certainly getting more “savvy” as they make their choices and are much more empowered to influence other customers’ choices. Brands that deceive or get this wrong are likely to fail faster now than ever before. I wonder whether some of this should therefore be left to natural selection (pun intended – sorry)?

Charles P. Walsh
Charles P. Walsh
11 years 2 months ago
I don’t believe that a certification will pass the consumer “label recognition test” unless it is associated with a food/product safety entity such as the USDA or the FDA. To pass this test a consumer must be able to immediately recognize the label and process the legitimacy of a claim at a single glance. As an example, nearly all consumers who see a USDA Organic label can immediately process that this product is indeed organic. Whether they know what exactly organic is or isn’t is irrelevant. The recognition of this label can make the difference in the consumers decision to purchase one like item over another. The Natural Products Association is right in their approach to create a legal or finite definition of what natural is, but in my opinion it won’t really work unless they partner with the USDA in defining and creating the standards by which natural is defined. I disagree that a third party certification is as good as a USDA or FDA certification. Those third party certifications often don’t pass the… Read more »
Veronica Kraushaar
Veronica Kraushaar
11 years 2 months ago

In the fresh produce world, the distinction is clearer because it takes years to obtain organic certification, while natural (or pesticide/chemical-free) is a shorter process. Some growers look at “natural” as a mid-stage they market while awaiting full USDA organic certification. Agree with comment above that “it shouldn’t be that hard”….

Al McClain
Al McClain
11 years 2 months ago

As a side note, I think consumers are generally getting savvier about all labels, looking to determine whether what they eat is at least semi-healthy, whether it is ‘natural’ and/or organic, and just what it has in it.

I recently ate packaged food made by a very large manufacturer (against my better judgment – long story) that said “Made With Real Cheese!) on the package. Gee, thanks. It’s that kind of ludicrous language that makes consumers skeptical of packaged food in general.

Herb Sorensen, Ph.D.
11 years 2 months ago
This topic goes back at least 100 years, and was driven (partially) by such things as the discovery of vitamins, beginning with Vitamin C. Once this natural chemical was identified, and purified, there was demand for more of it, and the purer the better. As night follows day, chemists learned how to manufacture it from other “natural” materials. And so for 50 years, the drive for purity was a drive to identify and understand all the components of food, and getting them in the purest possible form was the goal. Hence, pure white sugar, pure white flour, etc., etc. This drive for purity of course meant deconstructing your food and then reconstructing it according to your superior understanding, now. But, of course, it was many years before some essential elements, like the cobalt in Vitamin B12, were discovered. And, God knows there is plenty more we still don’t know about food–hence the practical FDA standard, GRAS = “generally regarded as safe.” This means that it has been eaten for a long time by a significant… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
11 years 2 months ago

Rustic Crust??? I love it…absolutely love it! Please invite Mr. Sterl to comment on other topics (I don’t care what they are, just so we get to hear the name again).

Ralph Jacobson
11 years 2 months ago

It’s funny that we think “natural” means “better”. There are, of course countless examples of humanly-enhanced food products (navel oranges, etc.) that end up being more convenient and/or healthier than in their natural form. If there are to be any consistent standards developed around the usage of the word, “natural” then the CPG industry needs to agree upon the specific characteristics that consumers have proven to desire in their food products, so any work that gets done on this topic has lasting value in the marketplace. Until that happens, all this discussion will do little to drive new business for the CPG and retail industries.

Jerome Schindler
11 years 2 months ago
All Natural Foods vs. All Natural Ingredients? Semi-official FDA opinion is that a natural vegetable yellow color (e.g. annatto) used to color cheese would not be “natural,” likewise if cherry extract were used to color a beverage. [Federal law exempts from labeling added color in cheese, butter and ice cream–good lobbying by the dairy folks!] I don’t think this is in sync with consumer thinking or expectation. Years ago FDA and FTC attempted to define “natural” but got hung up because they thought it essential for any definition of natural to exclude refined sugar. Refined sugar is just raw sugar with the dirt and impurities removed. If something is natural and you are just physically separating a portion of it, how can that portion not also be natural? Europe has a concept of nature identical. That way we don’t have essentially the same thing being natural depending on where it came from or how it was made. Many basic chemicals can come from the earth or be created by a rather simple chemical reaction, e.g.… Read more »
11 years 28 days ago

If you involve the government to certify, it creates more government regulation & bureaucracy. If you offer third-party certification, you create a lobbying effort where the third party gets “paid off” and only chooses those companies willing to pay the price. None of these options are good. Natural = consumer awareness.


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