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Amid consumer confusion, group pushes to define 'natural'

Amid consumer confusion, group pushes to define 'natural'

One in three consumers do not make a quality distinction between the terms “natural” and “organic” and/or government regulation for food products with such labels, according to results of a survey released Monday by the Organic and Natural Health Association, a Washington-based industry trade group.

The survey, which also confirmed marketplace confusion about the word “natural,” is a first step towards the trade group’s initiative to set a standard for the term, officials said.

“The overarching intent of this survey is to improve access to quality organic and truly natural food, products and services,” said Karen Howard, CEO and executive director of Organic & Natural. “Our goal is to support increased access through consumer research and education and we are now embarking on the development of a program that will create a clear, meaningful definition for natural foods, followed by a definition for natural supplements.”

Common consumer misconceptions include the belief that most vitamins come from natural sources and that “natural” means no pesticides are used, the group said. And while three-fourths of consumers perceive that organic foods must be at least 95% free from synthetic additives, almost two-thirds of consumers expect the same standard from “natural” foods. Further, approximately half of the consumers surveyed believe that “natural” means the product is free of synthetic pesticides and are non-GMO, attributes that are unique characteristics of organic products.

With 46% of consumers surveyed believing that the U.S. government regulates the term “natural,” the study concluded that the organic industry should improve education for consumers regarding the differing attributes of organic and natural in order to elevate the status of organic.

Furthermore, manufacturers producing natural products need to continue to clarify the meaning of natural so the term does not become diluted and lose significance among consumers.

In the study, consumers indicated that they were more likely to use “natural” than “organic” foods; in fact, 60% reported using organic less than once a week or not at all with more than a third using natural once a day or more, the group said. When it comes to meats labeled as “natural,” attributes of “no-added growth hormones” and “antibiotic-free” were of primary importance to consumers.

Organic & Natural said its definition of “natural” would be comparable to the definition of “organic,” requiring that all natural labeled food be non-GMO and not contain artificial preservatives, colors, flavoring or sweeteners, but in some cases there will be additional criteria beyond organic standards. For example, beef will be held to organic standards and must be grass-fed and pastured to earn a natural designation.

The group said it would develop a voluntary regulatory compliance and certification program for the term “natural” to be released during the first half of 2016, in conjunction with a consumer education campaign supporting transparency.

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