What do Juicy Juice fruit punch, SunChips, Nature Valley granola bars, and Skinny Girl Margaritas have in common? These products are all branded with the term “natural.” From canned vegetables to cereals to soft drinks, the term “natural” has become one of the most common claims on food, drugs, dietary supplements, and personal care products. The word “natural on the label or in advertising brings to mind nature, and things that are pure, clean, healthy, free of artificial additives, and therefore safe, harmless, and beneficial to overall health. In 2011, “all-natural” was the second-most-used claim on the new American food products. The food industry’s marketing of such products has been extremely successful. In 2009, sales of products with a “natural” claim reached $22 billion, and a recent study found that the “natural” claim is the most popular among consumers. When asked “which is the best description to read on a food label,” 31% of the consumers selected “100% natural” and 25% selected “all natural ingredients.” Although both Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USA) are statutorily mandated to protect consumer interest by prohibiting false and misleading labeling, both agencies define the term. As a result, food manufacturers have been free to use the term as they see fit. As the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) explains, the term “natural” “applies broadly to foods that are minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives; artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, and other artificial additives; hydrogenated oils; stabilizers; and emulsifiers.” However, this restrictive definition is merely aspirational. As a wave of recent lawsuits demonstrates, some food manufacturers have taken great liberties with their use of the term. Although the FDA has indicated that the issue is not a priority for the Agency because of the limited resources and because there was not enough evidence that consumers are willing to pay for “natural” foods, recent polls demonstrating consumer concern and confusion over such claims, and an influx of recent lawsuits alleging that “natural” claims do not meet consumer expectations of natural ingredients or minimum processing.

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