Food Labels and What 'Natural' Really Means

Friday, June 20, 2014

On this week’s Please Explain, Urvashi Rangan, director of the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group for Consumer Reports, discusses the findings from Consumer Reports' new survey about food labels, and explains what terms like "natural," "fair trade," "genetically engineered," mean. She’ll explain the rules for what food labels can claim, how they can be misleading, what information is missing from labels, and efforts to reform food labels.

“Natural” is one of those labels that is vague, misleading, and just falls so short of what consumers want it to mean,” said Rangan.  Consumers are actually being misled by the natural label. Six out of 10 consumers look for it 68 percent think meat labeled “natural” has no artificial growth hormones; 70 percent think that it means it has no artificial ingredients. People also believe it means there are no GMOs or artificial ingredients in feed, and that the animals went out doors. But “natural” means none of this. Meat labeled all-natural can come from animals raised in confinement and fed GMO feed and antibiotics.

There are almost no standards for the word “natural” on a food label. The definition for “natural” meat is that nothing artificial was added to the cut of meat itself. Water and salt water are considered natural, so meat labeled natural can be pumped up with water and salt water and still carry the label. It indicates nothing about the whole animal and how it was raised.

Meat raised with antibiotics does not need to be labeled that way. The term “antibiotic-free” is not legal for marketing meat. The USDA does allow “no antibiotics” or “no antibiotics ever.” 

Free range only means that animals have the option to go outdoors, not that they actually spend time outside ranging freely. Ninety-two percent of people who responded to Consumer Reports’ survey say they want animals to be raised and slaughtered humanely and want standards set to guarantee humane treatment of animals. There are currently no such standards.

The fair trade label has to do with worker welfare—how they’re treated and how much they’re making. We’ve seen “fair trade” labels on chocolate, bananas, coffee, things that come from other counties that often have low labor standards. But more and more consumers want the fair trade label applied to products from this country.

The organic label does have strict standards. Organic foods can’t use GMOs, can’t use most synthetic pesticides, and can’t use antibiotics (although there’s a loophole with poultry because organic chicken farmers can obtain chicks from other suppliers who might use antibiotics up until the second day of a chick’s life). There are inspectors and certifiers across the country that perform annual inspections. “It’s one of the most successful sustainability label out there,” she said. Organic foods are grown without most pesticides, which usually means the workers growing and picking organic fruits and vegetables aren’t exposed to toxic chemicals.

There are no standards for organic fish and seafood in the United States, so if you see fish labeled “organic,” don’t trust it. 

There are no  requirements for labeling GMOs. Currently three states—Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut—have passed legislature calling for GMO foods sold in those states to be labeled. Those laws go into effect in the next few years. Many other states have pending legislation or ballot initiatives calling for GMOs to be labeled. GMO’s are required to be labeled in 64 other countries, including the European Union.

What are people looking for on labels? 66 percent of people are looking for locally grown foods. Fifty percent of people are looking for no artificial growth hormones. Consumers also want to know how workers are being treated, how animals are being treated, and whether foods or animal feed contains GMOs. Rangan wants misleading and meaningless labels (like “natural”) to be eliminated and wants better, consistent labels to be applied to foods. She said, “People have a right to know how their food is produced.”  


Urvashi Rangan,

Comments [13]

in fact @J276 just listen to the segment.

Jun. 21 2014 10:20 AM

J276 -- selfish perspective. One unquestioning value of organic food is the nurturing -- as opposed to poisoning -- our water, water and land.

Jun. 21 2014 10:02 AM

There is no signficant evidence to back her assertion of the unquestioned value of organic produce... GMO free even less. This topic is more interesting in terms of sociology and the effect of marketing/scaremongering than anything to do with scientific evidence of harm/benefit.

Jun. 20 2014 07:54 PM
Richard from Tarrytown, NY

What is meant by "Natural Flavors"? It's on everything, even foods advertised as health foods.
I'd like to see "Natural Flavor from..... strawberry, grapes, mango, chocolate, etc. People have allergies and need
to know. Thanks

Jun. 20 2014 01:55 PM
Karen from Brooklyn

Farmer's markets are really expensive in NYC/Brooklyn IMO. CSAs are a more economical way to purchase fresh, organic produce and fruits (depending on the CSA...some are expensive). I run a pasture-raised meat CSA that delivers once a month from a farmer from upstate NY and that is more economical (10-20% cheaper) than buying comparable items from a grocery store. As well, more of the money is going directly to the farmer. I also believe that meat should *not* be cheap IMO b/c that is what drives the industrialized meat production. 99 cents a pound for meat is kind of crazy. If you get higher quality meats, as well, what I have found is that we eat less portions of it b/c it has more flavor (more satiating) b/c it is higher quality.

Jun. 20 2014 01:55 PM
Jean Marie

Your guest failed to answer an important question posed by a caller regarding the ability to provide the world with organically produced food. He suggested that we would need 5 or 6 EArths to support the American lifestyle.
I understand that we could feed the world using sustainable agricultural methods if we would institute better distribution channels. Apparently in the overdeveloped world we dispose of massive quantities of good food everyday.
Please ask the guest to address the abundance versus sustainability issue that the caller raised.
Thank you for your wonderful show.

Jun. 20 2014 01:53 PM
Ayelet from Leonia, NJ

It is fairly easy to make sure that your family will consume
Healty oraganic good and I am trying to buy milk, eggs, other dairy products and all meat
And chicken products organic only. But how do you sustain this when you eat
Out, drink Starbucks who does not use organic milk, and I bieve that most restaurants do not serve organic meat

Jun. 20 2014 01:52 PM
Estelle from Brooklyn

Does certified humane or humanely raised on the label have any meaning?

Jun. 20 2014 01:46 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I asked once at the Union Sq. Greenmarket, & they said they actually go to the farms to see if they live up to what it says in their posted "Growing Practices."

There's 1 grower there that calls its produce "Unconventionally Grown." I think that means they couldn't get USDA certified as organic; sometimes it's a question of whether they could fill out all the paperwork correctly or schedule an inspection, which can be a problem for smaller farms.

Jun. 20 2014 01:43 PM
Ashley from New Jersey

I wonder what your guest has to say about raw milk? I have been reading about how much better raw (unpasteurized) milk is for the body and would like to hear what she has to say on the subject.

Jun. 20 2014 01:42 PM
jenny from Hastings on Hudson, NY

Are there any cases where the word "natural" actually means something? Or should we always assume it's meaningless?

Jun. 20 2014 01:37 PM
Peter Moor from Northampton

I want to see ingredients as a percentage of a standard measure rather than 'per serving'. E.g., 'milligrams of sodium per 100grams' rather than 'per serving of 1/2 a cup'. I have had to create my own spreadsheet to bring logic to the current muddled method.

Jun. 20 2014 01:34 PM
Naturelle from nyc

how are labels in the US different from those in the EU for example?
Is the EU more 'honest' than the US?
Less deceptive than the US?

Jun. 20 2014 01:26 PM

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