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Consumer Reports: “Natural” or Not?

Natural foodsYONKERS, N.J. — Food labeled “natural” is one of the latest lures in the grocery aisle. A just-released Consumer Report’s survey found that 59 percent of people look for foods labeled “natural” when they shop. But Consumer Reports says it’s essentially meaningless claim.

Consumer Reports expert, Urvashi Rangan, says “The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t adequately define what ‘natural’ means, so a manufacturer can make the claim even when a product contains artificial ingredients.”
That explains how foods like Kikkoman soy sauce can boast that it is naturally brewed, yet contain synthetic sodium benzoate, a preservative. It also means Bosco Chocolate Syrup can brag that it’s “All Natural,” but still list the highly processed “high fructose corn syrup” as the first ingredient.  Crystal Light Natural Lemonade sounds wholesome, but it contains things like maltodextrin, artificial coloring agents and BHA, a synthetic preservative. Even Whole Foods own Doctor Snap soda, which proudly calls itself all natural, also contains artificial caramel coloring, which Consumer Reports tests found can contain 4-MEI — a possible carcinogen.

But Jody Rohlena of ShopSmart Magazine says, there are ways to detect a misleading “natural” label. Watch out for wording like: “Made with Natural Ingredients,” “Naturally Flavored,” and “Naturally Brewed.”  All are meaningless terms that can make food sound wholesome, even if it’s not. Rohlena adds “don’t take labels at face value. You always want to look at the ingredients list. If it contains a bunch of things you can’t pronounce, you probably want to do a little more homework.”

Consumers Union, the advocacy wing of Consumer Reports, plans to call for a ban on the use of the word “natural,” on food packaging. Instead it recommends looking for foods that are labeled “organic” -a term that is well regulated.

This report is based on an article in the July 2014 issue of Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine.