Demystifying Labels

Labels are multiplying in number as the food industry globalizes and expands. Between natural, grass-fed, no hormones added,  fair trade, cage free, free range, vine-ripened and more – the implications of each label are worth breaking down so that we can manage our expectations in buying and eating. We’ll chip away at the food industry’s lingo, term by term, over a series of posts. This entry focuses on the adjective natural. The seemingly innocent word is dangerously vague. It can be colored with plenty of assumptions, thus misrepresenting certain products.

Urvashi Rangan, the director of Consumer Reports has been waging a fifteen year campaign geared toward monitoring and regulating the use of the word natural in food marketing. Here’s an excerpt from the petition, that sums it up:


The ubiquitous “natural” label leads consumers to believe the food they buy does not contain such things as artificial ingredients, GMOs, pesticides, and hormones. Without any oversight or enforcement, food companies can use the “natural” label deceptively on almost any food.

David Ter Molen of the Food Identity Blog, notes that the Food and Drug Administration has no interest in defining the word natural as its too relative and elusive to box into one category, and as such, we’re left with this extremely vague and manipulative description. Marion Nestle of the Food Politics blog agrees that it’s one of the most meaningless words on our food labels. Two hundred lawsuits later as, NPR journalist Dan Charles encapsulated the legal battle best in maintaining, “…for now, whether something is natural remains a matter of opinion.”