natural nonsense: why ‘natural’ is meaningless marketing

When you see or hear the word “natural,” what comes to mind? Something connected to the earth, unadulterated and in its ‘default’ state of being? Images of nature? Thoughts about health and wellness? Do you get an innate sense that “natural” is a good thing, in opposition to “unnatural”?

You do? Congratulations, you’re a marketer’s dream come true.

The federal government, through the USDA, certifies the term “organic” and regulates its usage. To label something “organic,” complex standards have to be met. Primarily this includes the method of production (no GMOs, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge), the items used in production (only those on the nationally approved list, e.g. no chemical pesticides) and inspection by a USDA certifying agent. You can read more about it here.  

There currently exists no standardized, legally enforceable definition of “natural.” Several agencies have tried over the years to define it, but industry push-back has succeeded in squashing those attempts. Why? Because if consumers equate “natural” with “organic” anyway, why would Big Food go to the expense of certification and paperwork and better sourcing of ingredients? They can make a better profit margin by calling something “natural” and getting the consumer to buy it because they think it’s a superior product, when in fact, it’s not at all.

Recently lawsuits have been brought against the companies that produce Naked Juice, 7Up, Vitamin Water charging them with misleading or false advertising for claiming their products are “all-natural” when they included additives. Naked Juice just agreed to settle their large class action this month. On the surface, this is great for consumers because it’s bringing awareness to the use of the term “natural” on products. But it doesn’t stop other companies from using it or work toward a legally enforceable definition. A suit ending in settlement doesn’t create any legal precedent. This article from Salon further explains these lawsuits.

So we’ll keep seeing products like this on the market:




Yes, those are Natural Cheetos. Just think about that for a second. Natural. Cheetos.

You don’t have to turn away all products that claim to be “natural,” though. Instead of signaling you to walk away, read the label. Do the ingredients listed seem appropriate and recognizable to you? Do you see corn or soy as one of the ingredients? If so, it’s probably GMO, unless the label says it is certified non-GMO. Common sense is your ally – call it the natural Cheetos test.

Another movement is happening to bring meaning to the term “natural” outside of government regulating – called Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). Primarily for the produce and livestock industries, it’s a grassroots effort designed to help small farms and producers who sell their products locally get credit for the ways they produce without having to go to the expense of the national organic program. 

According to their website, to be Certified Naturally Grown, “farmers don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.”

CNG farms are inspected by other farmers and all records are available for public viewing.

I’ve started to see CNG products more and more in this area. In particular, Marty’s Market in the Strip District carries produce from local farms that are CNG. (And they have a rockin’ brunch too. Check them out.)

All consumer products, particularly those purchased from a grocery stores and not directly from a producer, have a level of marketing. Big Food spends millions upon millions of dollars every year trying to manipulate your behavior through advertising and marketing – not just on the TV but in the stores and on the packages. Some of the things they tell you are true, but others are only true by the best possible legal stretch of the imagination. (For a fascinating book about this, read Sugar Salt Fat by Michael Moss which I reviewed here.)

By reading the labels of the foods you buy and consume, you’re taking the control back from those companies and not buying blindly. Don’t be a sucker for “health washing” – the trend of making items appear to be more healthy than they are. Remember that the healthiest foods – the clean, whole foods – don’t need marketing to convince you they are healthy. 




Or a creepy cartoon cheetah.