The “All-Natural” Label: What Does It Mean?

The word “natural” in food marketing is a highly ambiguous term, holding very little actual definition. The FDA’s website loosely defines the term as meaning that “nothing artificial or synthetic...has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” This is exactly as nonsensical as it sounds.

Consumers, too, are confused: when the FDA last year requested a public comment period on what natural should mean, responses varied from “as close to the Earth as possible” to “only same species breeding” (no all-natural mules for that commenter). It’s clear that no one can agree on exactly what “natural” food is, or should be.

It may seem like a silly policy battle, but as New Food Economy reported this month, there’s money at stake for food producers of all sizes. An Ohio State University study showed not only that consumers were willing to pay more for a peanut butter labelled “all-natural,” but that they were willing to pay even more if a server told them it was all-natural.

As any researcher knows, one study does not a conclusion make. However, it’s interesting to consider how labels impact consumer perception of quality, taste, and value, even if those labels are technically almost meaningless. It’s even more interesting to consider how the delivery of those labels, whether verbal or written, impact that perception as well.

While marketing is a powerful tool, turning a $4.00 jar of peanut butter into a $6.50 jar of “all-natural” peanut butter, that power comes with responsibility. Charging more for a label or word is not a sustainable business model, nor does it buy consumer goodwill.

Hopefully, the FDA is working to add some weight behind the term natural. In the meantime, Fork and our entrepreneurs are committed to transparency in the production process. One benefit of being a small food producer is the ability to connect with consumers to mitigate confusion! At events like our Spring Market on March 18th, you can ask questions directly to our members about their methods and ingredients. They - and we - love to chat!

Click here for more information about our Spring Market - we hope to see you there!