LOS ANGELES - When you buy a box of crackers labeled "natural," do you just assume they're organic? Don't. When you choose an "all natural" chocolate syrup for your kids' ice cream, are you thinking it has less sugar? Read the label.
But what about those "natural" chips? Surely the package with the peaceful farm scene on the front means something about what's inside - right?
There's something about "natural" food that appeals to consumers. In one study from the consumer research firm Mintel, people were given a list of food product claims and asked which ones mattered most to them. "Natural" tied for No. 1 with the claim that a product contained a full serving of fruits or vegetables.
But many of us are at a loss to define exactly what "natural" means. And, according to Michele Simon, a public health lawyer based in Northern California, that state of confusion is right where the food industry wants us.
"Natural," it turns out, doesn't have a definition, not from the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates most packaged food. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates meat and poultry and has its own definitions.)
"There's a disconnect between what consumers think natural means and what manufacturers think it means," says Nicole Negowetti, a law professor at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana, who wrote a paper for the Brookings Institution about litigation over the word "natural" on food labels.
It's a disconnect that has led to more than 200 lawsuits, filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other groups, challenging use of the word "natural" on products that contain genetically modified ingredients or high fructose corn syrup, among other things, Negowetti says. None of the suits has been adjudicated, but some have been settled out of court.
The FDA has been under some pressure to define "natural," and the agency has been petitioned by Consumer Reports to ban its use on food labels. The FDA has so far done neither.
But consumers might need to switch gears because those "natural" labels could be disappearing, several industry watchers say. Descriptions such as "Great Plains Multigrain" Wheat Thins and words such as "simply" and "pure" might be in line to take the place of "natural." Pillsbury has a line of "Simply ... Cookies." And there are "Simply Cheetos Puffs" on store shelves.
"Manufacturers are just moving on," Negowetti says.
Companies also are making specific statements on labels, such as no GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or no artificial colors, according to Lynn Dornblaser, the director of Innovation and Insight at Mintel.
"In the bigger picture, this is the way things are going," she says. "Companies are talking more and more about what's in the product rather than slapping some ill-defined label on it."
Daniel Fabricant, who left the FDA to become chief executive of the Natural Products Association, says the landscape isn't perfect, but shoppers should consider what's important. The naturalness of Goldfish crackers shouldn't be judged on the fact "that they didn't grow on a goldfish tree," he says, but on the fact that the dyes used are plant extracts, which is OK by him.