A report from flavor producer Fona International says the food industry might be phasing out the use of “natural” claims sooner rather than later because the lack of a formal, FDA-approved definition of the word is causing more problems than it’s worth.

Without a legal definition of the world “natural,” manufacturers and consumers are both left to their own devices — and it’s resulting in frustration, confusion, and pushback. As a result, there has been a sharp decline in natural claims recently. In the past five years, all-natural claims on new product launches have dropped by 51%.

The savvy shopper

Today’s shoppers have so many resources at the tips of their fingers that researching food is easier than ever before. Rather than taking natural claims at face value, savvy consumers are closing their own knowledge gaps and seeking out free-from and other, more substantiated claims. Fona International’s survey found when customers do pick up a “natural” item, 45% will investigate to see if the natural claims on the box match their own definition.

The alternative for food manufacturers

Consumers want brand transparency and fresh, natural foods, so what are manufacturers supposed to do if they don’t use natural claims?  The solution — or at least a workaround — lies in claims defined by government agencies or third-party certifiers. For example, instead of using “all-natural,” food companies can use “certified organic,” “non-GMO,” and “free-from.”  

Should the food industry ditch natural claims?

Fona International’s study concludes that food manufacturers have a choice: they can continue using natural claims or switch to legally corroborated claims. Either way, the industry should tread lightly. Use “natural” and risk consumer confusion and loss of sales; stamp multiple certifications on packaging and risk packaging looking like a 1990’s infomercial.

The FDA opened up a comment period in 2015 to collect information about using the word “natural” on packaging. Even after receiving over 7,600 comments, the agency has made no further moves to define the word “natural”…. and the chances of seeing any action anytime soon are slim to none. Suffice it to say the food industry needs to find a solution that works for them — and their consumers — and it’s likely to be far, far away from the gray area of the word “natural.”

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