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Trade group to introduce another ‘natural’ food label

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Will labels put an end to consumer confusion over natural foods? (iStock)

When it comes to food, what does natural really mean?

Food and beverage companies have been slapping “all natural” and “healthy” labels on products for years, but it's generally known that it means almost nothing.

While natural labels are not regulated by the government and the Food and Drug Administration has no definition for what qualifies as a natural product, public interest groups have been pushing back with  false advertising lawsuits against companies like Welch’s, Naked and Kind.

To help clear up some of the confusion, the Organic and Natural Health Association (ONHA) --a trade organization that represents companies committed to quality and natural products --will unveil a new certification label.

ONHA's “natural” seal will begin appearing on foods early 2016.  It will be voluntary and overseen by the group --not any government agency, similar to the non-GMO Verified Project.

Like the U.S. Department of Agriculture's certified organic standards, foods that receive ONHA's seal cannot be genetically modified—or contain any GMOs—must be free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavoring, sweeteners nor can it contain nanotechnology or synthetically produced vitamins E and D.  In addition, “natural” beef must be pastured and grass-fed.

A national survey conducted last year by the Consumer Reports National Research Center revealed that 59 percent of shoppers check to see if the products they are buying are labeled natural. But, based on a survey from the National Marketing Institute, 46 percent of consumers believe that the government regulates the use of the term “natural” and about 50 percent said they thought the label meant a product  was free of pesticides and GMOs.

“It became clear to us that we just needed to define ‘natural’ as what it was,” ONHA CEO Karen Howard told The Guardian.  Since the FDA has no formal definition for the word natural, Howard explained that a “naturally” labeled product sold today could contain “added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”

Despite this confusion, business is booming in the natural foods sector. Nielsen data reports that there was a 24 percent increase in sales of “natural” products between 2012 and 2014. The OHNA label may be a useful way for consumers to designate between different  food items but some experts say since its self-selecting, it may be more of a marketing ploy.

So does the world need another label?

Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety, told The Guardian warned that a voluntarily label program that relies “solely on a new marketing claim is not going to address widespread consumer confusion around the issue of ‘natural’.”