73 percent of shoppers actively seek out and purchase "natural" foods, even though there are no standards for the use of the term.

By Gillie Houston
Updated May 24, 2017
Congress Food Bill
Credit: © Andrew Olney / Getty Images

The grocery aisles are crowded with "natural" products—from snacks to supplements to dog treats. But what exactly does it mean for food to be natural? This is the question the FDA is attempting to answer, as pressure from consumers to better define and regulate the term has grown in fervor.

According to a new survey by Consumer Reports, shoppers are looking for stricter federal standards on food label language, especially when it comes to the term "natural." The company's research center collected upwards of 250,000 signatures on a petition demanding that the FDA either establish stronger standards for or ban the usage of the "natural" label. Despite the backlash against the term, the study also found that a whopping 73 percent of shoppers actively seek out and purchase "natural" foods despite the fact there are no standards for the use of the term.

The FDA seems to understand this, which is why they recently solicited public comment on what "natural" should mean. According to NPR, the FDA gathered nearly 5,000 opinions on the issue, many of which utilize theological reasoning when defining the term, such as: "Natural should be limited to those ingredients that have been created by God." Other consumers said that "natural" food should be free of GMOs, pesticides, chemicals, synthetics, and other artificial elements.

Because of the range of public feedback, defining the term is no easy task—and in fact, this is the third effort by the U.S. government to nail down "natural." The first attempt was in 1974 by the Federal Trade Commission, which deliberated over the term for nine years before giving up. The FDA took a whack in 1991, but eventually gave up, stating that "None of the comments provided FDA with a specific direction to follow for developing a definition."

Pressure to define the term seems stronger than ever before. For corporations, recent lawsuits—such as that brought upon Snapple over the labeling of their drinks as "all natural"—have provoked desire for more definitive standards out of fear of continued legal woes.

There's no saying when the FDA might announce an official definition of the term "natural," but for now they're not objecting "to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances."