Natural foods: Who knows what your food actually is?

Photo by Patrick Fort

Business is booming in the organic food sector. Since 2004, sales of organic food have increased 150 percent, from $12 billion to a projected $30 billion in 2013, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. One additional factor that is not included in this number, though, is the sale of “natural” foods. And there’s some evidence that consumers actually prefer the “natural” label to the more specific “organic.”

A survey conducted in 2010 by the Hartman Group, a research group based in Bellevue, Wash., found that shoppers valued products being “natural” over being organic. Sixty-nine percent of consumers believed that products labeled as “natural” were free from both pesticides and herbicides, while 63 percent believed that they were free from genetic modification. Other studies indicate shoppers consider “natural” labels to be more important to them than “organic” labels.

When Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act under Title 21 of the 1990 Farm Bill, the term “organic” was given a specific definition in the food business. Until recently, though, “natural” did not have a legal definition. With a vague USDA definition of having “no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed,” “natural foods” have become very popular, but figures for their actual scale of growth are unavailable.

The vague definition of “natural” is not the only issue, though. The USDA does not police that definition heavily, so manufacturers and producers may use “natural” without having to be checked by the USDA on their claims the first time around. Only after products hit the shelves may the companies be prosecuted, whereas other products must be tested prior to hitting store shelves.

Suzanne Nelson, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder, teaches classes about nutrition in the school’s integrated physiology department. She says that consumers are willing to pay more for products that are labeled as “natural.”

“Consumers will pay approximately 10 cents more for a product if it says ‘natural’ on it,” Nelson says, referring a previous study.

In fact, the price differences could be even more than her estimation. A 2011 study by the Cornucopia Institute found “natural” foods are often priced higher than conventional foods, and even sometimes higher than organic foods. “Natural” or “all natural” granola was as much as 30 cents per ounce more expensive than organic options or options with no claim at all.

Despite the importance of the term in consumers’ eyes, Nelson says the actual definition is nebulous. In her CU classes, she says, many students say they buy “natural” products solely for the label, but there is confusion regarding the definition.

“I always make the joke in class that the table is natural, I’m natural and so is this bread,” Nelson says. “We say that and students say, ‘Well, I always buy foods that say 100 percent natural.’ It sounds like a good word, but it’s costing us financially when we buy into that.”

Nelson says her students were not aware of the vague definition for “natural.” She suggests that there is a psychological reason for her students buying into the use of the word “natural.”

“We all like that word,” Nelson says. “There is 100 percent natural cereal. It sounds good.”

Even natural/organic groceries stores aren’t clear on what natural means to them and their customers.

Evan Bushnell, assistant store manager of Natural Grocer by Vitamin Cottage, says that customers have varying ideas of what it means for food to be natural.

“Some people think one thing and some people think another thing,” Bushnell. “They have their own idea. There’s no clear definition.”

Nelson uses cereal as an example of how food labeling legally works.

“[Companies] can’t say it lowers cholesterol until we have proof that it does,” Nelson says. “There is a really rigorous testing process to make sure that Cheerios actually lower cholesterol due to their fiber content.”

But, she says, there’s no comparably rigorous test for whether a food is “natural.” Bushnell agrees with Nelson regarding the confusion about the definition of the term.

“I don’t understand the word ‘natural’ because it doesn’t really mean anything,” Bushnell says.

Although the USDA’s definition of the term “natural” is vague, the federal agency has in the past stopped companies from placing it on food labels when they deem its usage to be untruthful or misleading.

Kelli McGannon, a spokeswoman for King Soopers grocery stores, says the company tries to be as fair to customers as possible when it advertises foods as “natural.”

“Our approach is that we obviously try to be very transparent to our customers and to carefully identify things that we label as organic and natural as a message that customers can trust,” McGannon says.

McGannon says that the grocery chain is not in control of what its suppliers put on their packaging.

King Soopers stores do what they can to control the prices of their organic and natural products, McGannon says.

“Obviously there are things that drive the cost of an item: Is it sourced locally, can we source it locally, or the cost of the ingredients,” McGannon says. “Like all of the products in our stores, not just our organic and natural products, we try to be as competitive as possible.”

George Frushour, produce and floral merchandiser for King Soopers and City Market, says that the stores try to stock what their customers are buying.

“The customer comments that we get on a weekly basis — we get recaps from every single store — [requests] for organics is one of the number one requests that we get,” Frushour says. “We are always looking to source more organics and what is important to [the customers].”

Each King Soopers and City Market store receives multiple requests per week from customers asking for more and more organic and natural products, says Frushour, further validating the studies of the Hartman Group.

Natural Grocer stocks foods that it sees as “high quality and contain no artificial colors” among other things, says Bushnell.

In the end, even as grocery stores themselves wrestle with the definition of “natural,” Bushnell argues that Natural Grocer´s products meet a higher standard — although there still isn´t a lot of clarity.

“We don’t have the brands the Safeway and King Soopers have,” Bushnell says. “We have what our company has deemed to be a healthy alternative.”