Why 'natural' shouldn't matter on a food label

Nature Valley granola bars
© Amazon -- See, they're made with "100% natural whole grain oats". But what does that actually mean?

Shoppers need to think for themselves, not expect to be spoon-fed information by food manufacturers.

There is a lot of confusion over what the word 'natural' means on food labels. Many people look for it because they think it means a product is healthier and cleaner. But upon closer examination of the ingredient list, they may discover that so-called 'natural' products contain some rather non-natural-sounding ingredients, such as methylisothiazolinone. And this makes them angry.

The problem lies in the fact that 'natural' is not defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration. It is a term than food manufacturers can slap onto any box or bottle without needing to follow any regulations whatsoever.

Most shoppers don't know this, however. Writing for the New York Times, Julie Creswell reveals how much confusion there is over what natural actually means:

"A survey of consumers in 2015 by Consumer Reports magazine showed that at least 60 percent of respondents believed 'natural' on packaged and processed foods meant they contained no artificial colors or ingredients and no genetically modified materials.

'About two-thirds of consumers surveyed think that natural on a food package means no pesticides were used,' said Charlotte Vallaeys, a senior policy analyst with Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. 'They’re confusing it with organic,' which prohibits nearly all pesticides from use on food products."

Because of this confusion, Creswell says there are a significant number of lawsuits between consumers who believe they have been misled and companies that are more than happy to take advantage of consumers' blind willingness to pay more for a natural-labelled product.

Some of the lawsuits have been successful. General Mills was forced to change its Nature Valley granola bars from "100% Natural" to the marginally less ambiguous "Made with 100% Natural Oats" (since when were oats not entirely natural?). Other lawsuits are rather humorous:

"A federal judge tossed a case a few years back after concluding that reasonable consumers would understand that the 'crunchberries' in Cap’n Crunch cereal were not real fruit."

This whole debate leads to some interesting ethical questions -- namely, is it the job of companies to expound on each of their ingredients in order to make shopping as easy and brainless for people as possible?

In an ideal world, the answer would be yes, but we need to realistic here. That's not going to happen, because it's the job of food marketers to try to convince us that their product is the absolute best, worthy of our hard-earned dollars. This doesn't make it right, but this is what marketers do! Let's not pretend otherwise.

All pre-packaged food products come with detailed ingredient and nutrition labels on them. That is a fair amount of information to work with, so why not use it? As shoppers, we have two powerful tools at our disposal -- our brains and our dollars. At risk of sounding harsh, I take issue with people who shop blindly, grabbing products off a shelf and then claiming naiveté when it comes to understanding what's actually in them.

If people truly cared about what they put into their bodies, they would take the five seconds needed to scan an ingredient list, figure out whether or not it's natural enough for their personal preferences, and decide if it is worth the money.

While I certainly think the food companies' tendency to mislead customers is wrong, I think that if we want to change our food system, we shoppers need to use our heads. We need to think for ourselves, analyze critically, and -- here's a radical thought -- buy whole, unprocessed ingredients that do not need to be described as natural or anything else because they are still in their natural state. Plus, we have bigger fish to fry, so to speak; labels that clarified best-before dates to minimize food waste, revealed genetically modified ingredients, or gave more detail on place of origin would be far more useful than fretting about natural-ness.

So, instead of relying on General Mills to brag about its 100% natural oats, consider buying a bag of oatmeal, some seeds, honey, and nuts, and whipping up your own batch of entirely natural granola bars. Then you'll know exactly what you're getting.

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