A new research survey from Consumer Reports find that in the U.S., there is a mismatch between the types of foods sought by consumers and the types of foods actually purchased. Specifically, more shoppers are seeking out "natural" foods in supermarkets, but the legal definition of the term remains murky.
Unlike the term "natural," the term "organic" is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Certified organic" means the food does not contain genetically modified organisms, has minimal pesticide residue and minimal synthetic components, Business Insider reports.
The nutritional value of organic food relative to "non-organic" food has been questioned, but there is a clear legal definition surrounding the term.
The term "natural," on the other hand, has never been regulated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration plans to look more closely at how the term is used by food producers and marketers in 2016, and has solicited public comment about the issue on its website, USA Today reports.
Urvashi Rangan, Consumer Reports' director of food safety, said: "The problem with having all these misleading labels is it creates a lot of green noise in the marketplace. If we think about wanting better food-production systems, then we need to provide meaningful choice to people."
Ultimately, the overuse of the term "natural" leads consumers to make decisions based on value and cost, which end up being meaningless in terms of health, USA Today notes.
Examples of products that claim to be "natural" but which were called out in the Consumer Products report include Kraft shredded cheddar cheese and Del Monte fruit cups.
Despite the need for consumers to get the correct information about the products they buy, regulating the term "natural" may ultimately be difficult.
Lauren Kotwicki, a spokeswoman for the FDA, said the following about the term: "From a food-science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed in some way."
She added, "It’s really hard to come up with a definition that’s both intuitive and actually meaningful to the consumer."