Natural Schmatural

Details of a recent study that shows what consumers think "Natural" means on food product labels.


Natural Schmatural

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I get a lot of really interesting emails from readers. Most of them are recipe-related but every once in a while someone will send me an article or story related to food politics, labeling, or other issues. I always check these out and sometimes link to them in my Friday’s Around The Internet Kitchen posts, but sometimes I get sent something that warrants its own post!

The email that this kind reader sent me was in regards to a recent study that was released, but as far as I can tell, didn’t receive much press. Maybe that’s because most people don’t find the results interesting, but I thought they were fascinating and worth discussing.

The survey was done by The Mid Atlantic Specialty Crops Research Initiative. This group, as far as I can tell, was formed from a USDA grant and is made up of members from a lot of varied backgrounds from food producers, to food sellers, to academics that study everything from food safety to food marketing.

This particular survey is about the Consumer Definitions of “Natural.”

What’s Natural Anyway? I think this report is interesting because it’s about a word that causes maybe the most amount of confusion on food labels: Natural. This word is super-confusing because it’s what I call half-regulated.

You see, it’s definition is regulated when it comes to meat and poultry, but not for anything else. Most consumers don’t know this so if they know the meat and poultry regulated definition, they think it applies to other foods as well.

If you see the term “natural” on a steak, for example, it’s regulated by the USDA and means:

“A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as – no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.)”

As it turns out, even this definition is pretty meaningless. You can inject cattle with all kinds of antibiotics, hormones, or whatever else you want and still call their steaks “natural” because you’re not adding anything to the “product.” Basically as long as you don’t dye it yellow or do anything else obviously weird to the meat, you can call it “natural.”

It’s not a great word to see on meat packaging because it doesn’t tell you much, but at least it tells you something.

Meanwhile, if you see the word on a non-meat product, it’s completely unregulated. That means that the word means whatever the producer of the product intends it to mean. I think you can see how this could be horrible for consumers.

So when you see “natural” on a product that’s not meat, remember that it can mean almost anything.

What do people THINK Natural Means? This is the real meat (ha) of the study. They asked about 1500 people in cities on the East Coast (although I’m not sure that the geography is important) what meanings they thought applied to the term “Natural.”

Participants could pick more than one and this bar graph represents what people selected:

Of course, none of these are right because the word means nothing really unless it’s regulated and officially defined. Here’s my thoughts based on these results though:

  • The most common selections correspond with the definition for “Natural” as it applies to meat and poultry. This means that either A) the USDA landed on an incredibly intuitive definition of the word or B) that people have become somehow aware of that definition but are now applying it to the wrong foods.
  • People have an incredibly positive view of this term. Most of these are almost laughable. 11% of people said “untouched by man.” How is that even possible if you’re buying the product in a store? HALF of the people surveyed said that natural implies “In its original/pure form.” But you see “natural” on products like potato chips.
  • People are confused by the word Organic. Even though the “Organic” label is pretty well-regulated, apparently it doesn’t matter because producers can just stick the term “Natural” on the food and almost a quarter of people will think that product is organic.
  • Anyone who wants to sell any food product should stick the term natural on it. Hell, you can probably even charge more for the “natural” version.

An Example. I love it when a good example falls in my lap. Literally while I was writing this post a commercial came on TV for the new Wendy’s Apple Pecan chicken salad. They list their dressing as an “all natural” pomegranate vinaigrette.

Keep in mind that the fact that they used the term “Natural” means that 40% of the survey responders think that the dressing is “good for you” and 53% of the people think that it means the dressing is “As grown in nature” (or I guess the ingredients are).

Let’s look at the ingredients in this dressing:

Water, Sugar, Pomegranate Juice Concentrate, Soybean Oil, White Wine Vinegar, Orange Juice Concentrate, Balsamic Vinegar, Distilled Vinegar, Salt, Orange Flavedo (orange peel, sugar, orange oil), Shallots, Xanthan Gum, Natural Flavor, Spices.

Are these bad ingredients? I don’t know. They could probably be worse, but they definitely don’t imply some of the awesome benefits that the survey-responders would guess.

So again, the word is basically meaningless.

Even more though, I think it’s harmful because…

A Half-Regulated Word is the Worst Kind of Word. It’s too confusing to have a word that’s regulated for some products but not for others. If you’re going to regulate a word, you need to find a way to do it across the board. Having a word like “Natural” that’s defined and regulated in certain cases is horribly confusing for consumers. And trust me, we do a good enough job confusing ourselves. We don’t need any help.

My Solution: Natural Schmatural. My solution to this stupid situation is to mentally substitute the word “Schmatural” for “Natural” anytime you see it. “Schmatural” clearly means nothing and is made up. This makes it easy to have no expectations about what you’re getting when you buy something that’s “Schmatural.”

So remember people. The word isn’t “Natural.”

It’s “Schmatural.”

And it means nothing.

Spread the word.

6 Responses to “Natural Schmatural” Leave a comment

  1. Nick, thanks for the clarification on “natural” products. The mass produced food scene is nothing short of obscene. Like you are pointing out, it isn’t just ultra processed items like Twinkies and Cheetos, it’s things you would expect to be decent like “whole wheat” starch pillows (I mean bread). I keep wondering how bad our health crisis has to get before we collectively wake up and question our food choices. I don’t think we are going to be able to count on the government for this great awakening either, this one seems to be in the hands of the consumer. Makes me feel very blessed that my family homesteads and produces a lot of our own food. In fact, this morning I am faced with three dishpans of ripe organic tomatoes that need to be canned. I had been thinking of it as a morning full of work, now I am remembering what a privilege it really is. Thanks for the perspective. :0)

  2. This reminds me of another great post I just read on Tom Naughton’s site Fat Head :

    I think that right now we rely way too much on government to tell us what is good or bad. Back in Granny’s day, we all knew what was good or bad, and certainly did not need the government to regulate the use of a name, or for someone to tell us that something was natural. We simply ate what we grew, killed, or we might have bought it from someone who actually killed and butchered the animal.

    People were not generally obese back then either. Ironic, when you think on all the programs that “educate” us stupid people on what to eat have produced a nation with an “obesity crisis.” It really makes you stop and think.

    Here is another one for you. Natural coloring. Red is a great color that is naturally obtained from the pigment of the Cochineal bug. (Wiki entry Now, you can be sure they would not label the ingredient as “Squished insects bodies and eggs” as an ingredient, but rather, “natural colorings.”

    No, I have a hearty belief (now that I am diabetic, more than ever) that we are what we eat. We cannot just blindly follow what we are told, because in examining the motives behind what we are told show me that perhaps big industry really does not have my best interest in mind. For me, it is wonderful to look back at old cookbooks and see what they have to say. Give it a try sometimes, and you will be surprised at what you read.

  3. They asked about 1500 people in cities on the East Coast (although I’m not sure that the geography is important) what meanings they thought applied to the term “Natural.”

    This is a *very important* element of this study because, being from the left coast as I am, West coasters would of course know the difference between something that was “natural” or something else that was “processed beyond recognizing”, i.e. in corn syrup bottled, Red #5 canned, cryopacked or freeze dried form.

    1. I kind of doubt that it would be a noticeable difference actually. Maybe a few percentage points here or there, but I’m not sure it would be crazy-different.

      Remember that the study wasn’t in choosing between two items but assigning traits to a common word seen on packaging.

  4. Gray words are the marketer's friend. I don't know if it's just that I notice it more now, but it seems like the nebulous words are used more and more in packaging.

    One a similar note, my wife got into the organic kick for a while. When I asked her reasoning she said, "Because it's good for you". I pointed out that arsenic is organic. You probably have already learned this in your short married life. Being a smart alec "Isn't good for you."

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