Spend a few minutes at your local grocery store, and you will find “all natural” products, from fruit juices to meats, peppering the aisles and freezers, often at higher prices. It’s clear that the word “natural” moves product, but is it worth the extra cost? For some products, you may be better off saving your money.
Even Food and Drug Administration Can’t Define ‘Natural’
What is “all natural” anyway? Ask five people to define all-natural products and chances are you’ll receive five different answers. But a likely consensus is that so-called natural products are healthful, perhaps even organic. It may surprise you to discover, then, that the label has no official definition and may hold no nutritional significance.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declined to establish a definition of the word “natural,” although it does allow the label only on products without added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. While these guidelines inform consumers what “natural” isn’t, they don’t state what “natural” is. This leaves the word open to interpretation, which can easily differ from company to company and product to product. In other words, “all natural” is more about what companies are willing to do to snag hold of consumers’ wallets than about concern for their well-being.
How Two Household Favorites Interpret All Natural Products
Orange juice maker Tropicana and the Snapple beverage company have each used “all natural” on their products and been sued for their claims. They are just two of several major brands that have come under fire for allegedly using the word to deceive consumers.
A 2007 lawsuit over Snapple teas centered on the brand’s use of high fructose corn syrup in products labeled as all natural. While the process used to create high fructose corn syrup does not occur naturally, it technically fits the FDA’s framework — no added color, artificial flavor or synthetic substances — and a judge ruled for the company. Still, Snapple has said it no longer labels products “all natural” if they contain high fructose corn syrup, and the ruling hasn’t stemmed the tide of criticism and litigation.
Tropicana is facing its own rash of lawsuits. At issue are so-called “flavor packs,” which are added to the juice to refresh any taste lost in processing and give the brand a consistent flavor. These flavor packs came to light in a 2009 book called “Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice.” The author, Alissa Hamilton, told the Associated Press she supports more honest labeling and would like Tropicana and others to refrain from describing their products as “natural” or “pure.”
Make an Informed Decision About All Natural Products
Although both consumers and companies potentially stand to benefit from a clearer definition of the word “natural,” chances appear slim that the FDA will refine its criteria in the near future. Its mandate is merely to clarify what is considered safe for consumption, and defining “natural” would require the agency to go further.
In the meantime, the question for frugal consumers is whether this loosely regulated label merits denting their budgets. It may be tempting to pay a premium for “all natural” products if you’re trying to eat healthfully, but the controversy, litigation, and dearth of regulation around the term suggest that plenty of so-called natural foods may confer no more health benefits than cheaper items that lack the label.
Chocolate marketed as all-natural, for instance, is likely no more healthful than cheap chocolate. Consumers are probably better off heeding recommendations to limit saturated fat or sodium. Ultimately, it’s up to you to set priorities for yourself and your family.