Consumer Reports: Two-thirds of consumers misled by natural labels

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Nearly two-thirds of consumers are misled by foods labeled as “natural,” a Consumer Reports National Research Center study released Wednesday found.

Of 1,005 adults polled in December, nearly half incorrectly believed that natural claims on labels had been independently verified, and nearly two-thirds thought the “natural” label meant more than it does.

Consumer Reports, which has long argued that natural labeling lacks meaningful standards, found many people think a natural label on processed foods means that no pesticides, artificial ingredients, artificial chemicals or genetically modified ingredients were used.

While 62 percent of consumers said they already buy food labeled as natural, 87 percent of those consumers said they would pay more for natural food if the label met their expectations.  

The study found that 85 percent of consumers said natural should mean no chemicals were used during processing; 84 percent said no artificial ingredients, colors or pesticides should be used; and 82 percent said the food should not contain genetically modified ingredients.

“Ideally, we’d like to see federal regulators ban the natural label, but if they don’t get rid of it, then they must give it real meaning,”  Urvashi Rangan, director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center, said in a report released with the study.

The group petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2014 to ban natural labels altogether and asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban the the word from being used on meat and poultry labels.

In November, the FDA responded by asking the public to comment on whether it should define “natural” and set guidelines for its use on food products. The agency said it has long considered natural to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic, including color additives, were used in producing the food.

The FDA extended the public comment period last month to give industry more time to respond. Comments are now due May 10.