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Thursday, April 28, 2016

That ‘Natural’ Label Doesn’t Mean Much

The feds are finally cracking down on misleading labels, but you're still better off buying organic for now.
Scenario: You’re at the store, trying to make healthy yet frugal choices. You see several products labeled “organic” and others labeled “natural.”

You’re trying to buy good food and household products for less, and those organic items seem to cost a bit more. Maybe natural is just as good, right? What’s the difference?

It comes down to standards.

Federal organic standards ban the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and most synthetic ingredients in any certified organic product. So that organic label means something.

Natural, on the other hand, generally means nothing. It’s usually a feel-good label slapped on packaging to attract consumers who value their health and the environment to a product that may not be good for either.

Yet a few years ago, a report made headlines with the finding that consumers prefer natural to organic products. Clearly there’s some confusion.

The Food and Drug Administration is now exploring developing a new “natural” food label, which would at last have a specific, legal meaning. Historically, the agency has defined products free of artificial or synthetic ingredients as natural, though other agencies have their own definitions.

Despite these standards, no products with a “natural” label have undergone a rigorous certification program like the ones organic products must clear. It’s been a free-for-all.

That could change, though.

This spring, for the first time, the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on five sellers of skin and hair care products claiming to be natural despite containing not-so-natural ingredients with names like dimethicone and phenoxyethanol.

Body care products have historically been a tricky area even for the organic label.

Technically, organic standards only apply to food. But body care products often use edible ingredients like olive oil or aloe vera. Shouldn’t the same rules that apply to the organic olive oil you dip your bread in apply to the olive oil in your lip balm?

Increasingly they do — in part because the government agreed to allow the USDA Organic seal on the labels of products that meet the same legal requirements as organic food. Many retailers have also begun refusing to carry body care products that claim to be organic but aren’t.

Hopefully this first action by the Federal Trade Commission will spur other manufacturers to either clean up their ingredients or change their natural labels too, if only out of fear of legal action.

In a perfect world, the word natural would have a clearly defined meaning, and only products that met the definition would carry a label bearing that term. Alas, that is not the case in our world.

While the government takes timid steps at policing misleading labels, health-conscious consumers can send food and body care manufacturers a message of their own by opting for organic over natural.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix