Understanding “Natural” Products in Food Labeling

by Melissa on April 23, 2013

Melissa_L_NPEW_iThis year’s Natural Products Expo West  (NPEW) was so different from its past tradeshows—mainly exhibitors embraced the non-GMO project which was quite blatant by all the butterflies on product packaging and exhibitor booths. In addition, Whole Foods announced during NPEW their commitment to full GMO transparency by 2018, becoming the first retailer in the U.S. requiring the labeling of GMOs.

All of this revealed the growing popularity behind the modern food movement, how far we have come. And yet, after hearing marketing pitches left and right and seeing everyone competitively hoard free samples, I started to feel a sense of “natural-product-washing,” if you will. The countertrend was now a trend used for increasing profit margins and marginalizing the consumer that the movement originally sought to liberate.

The Existing Dichotomy within Ethical Eating

It wasn’t until the last day of NPEW, when I sat in on an open dialogue seeking to define the term “natural,” that I understood the intrinsic purpose for such a tradeshow. Keynote speakers used their perspective lenses to explain the diction behind “natural” and “organic,” seeking to create a more transparent definition. The conversation revealed a dichotomy that exists within ethical eating, a trend that includes supporting local farmers, fair trade, organic food, GMO labeling, and natural products to counteract our industrialized food provision. What is currently viewed as a paradigmatic shift in opposition of industrialized food should not be viewed so binary.

Natural vs. Organic vs. Non-GMO

Currently, both the FDA and USDA have not developed a definition for use of the term “natural” and states that genetically modified foods are safe for consumption. In addition, the USDA heavily regulates the organic industry. Such inconsistency in regulation allows retailers to falsely label their products, perpetually confuses the consumer and negatively impacts the success of ethical eating.

“Natural” and “organic” are often used interchangeably though they display notable differences both in regulation and in consumer perception. To the consumer, “natural” is symbolic; it represents the consumer’s choice to eat minimally processed, healthy, whole food. To a food retailer, “natural” products must not include listed hormones, antibiotics, sweeteners, artificial flavoring, or food coloring. Though naturalness often characterizes organic, organic is based on process—meaning products must follow a set of farming and production practices defined by the USDA—and is often associated with limited access and out of reach to economic and cultural non-elites. To further complicate matters, where does GMO fall into all of this?

Where Do We Go from Here?

Such inconsistency has backpedaled proper food labeling standards. While we push our federal agencies towards a movement that supports ethical eating, I stress the importance of voting with your dollar. The food industry was built upon such an idea and if consumers do not see a value in a process, it will go away.


Melissa Lee

Melissa graduated from the University of California, Berkeley back in 2011. She is currently the Marketing Manager of Enrout, a vacation rental search engine. In her spare time, she is an animal handler for the Peacock Foundation, a husbandry volunteer at the California Science Center, and a member of Green Lifestyle’s GMO Committee.


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