The confusion around “natural”. Half of products labelled as natural are unhealthy. Are they misleading?

Recent blogs have focused on consumer desires to recognise what is in the food they’re eating. We started with a look at “clean” food, then the concept of transparency. Here we have a look at the use of natural claims.


Natural claims have been in the media recently following research from WA’s Live Lighter Campaign that showed almost half of supermarket products using the term natural or nature were high in saturated fat, sugar and/or salt.

This got me thinking, what does the claim “natural” really mean, and if consumers are viewing it as a health attribute how do we make sure it’s being used in the right way?

What is natural?

The term natural has no official definition in regard to food.

Regulatory definitions

In Australia, natural claims are regulated by the ACCC under the Consumer Protection Act. The ACCC suggests that, when using a natural claim, you give thought to what consumers would think of as natural (rather than food science or technological definitions). Other guidance offered is that:

  • Natural claims imply that the product is made up of natural ingredients that is, ingredients nature has produced, not man made or interfered with by man
  • Natural claims may be misleading if used to describe foods that have been altered by chemicals.

Overseas, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have a specific definition natural claims. It has recently sought public comment as it decides on how to best define the term. Previous guidance has been that natural means “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all colour additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food”. They have also warned against using “natural” due to the ambiguity around its meaning or implications.

In the EU, products that meet specified criteria for a nutrition claim can use the word natural or naturally as a prefix to a claim. An example of this could be, naturally high in calcium. They have also defined natural in terms of flavourings.


Consumer expectations of what natural means vary widely including everything from nutritious to GMO free.

  • Research from Technomic suggest there is a shift in consumers’ definition of healthy and that it now includes quality, origin and sourcing considerations such as natural, local or free-range.
  • Consumer research for Datamonitor showed that 14% of consumers associated a natural claim with products that were significantly more nutritious.
  • In the U.S. a recent survey from Consumer Reports showed around two-thirds of consumers through "natural" means, no artificial ingredients, pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

With the lack of regulatory definition and widely varying consumer interpretations you can see why companies using natural claims are open to scrutiny or suggestions of misleading information.

Why claim natural?

The research from Live Lighter quoted that three in five Australian adults are more likely to buy food or drinks described as ‘natural’. And the fact that they found over 330 products using the claim suggests it’s popular. However, globally the use of natural claims has been declining for the past few years. Speculation on its decrease in popularity suggests that difficulty substantiating the claim has companies looking to more specific claims alternative claims such as “free from”.

Stakeholders and influencers are also calling manufacturers out for the use of this term.

The most natural foods in the supermarket seldom bother with the word; any food product that feels compelled to tell you it’s natural in all likelihood is not
— Michael Pollan
When it comes to food labels, “healthy” and “natural” are marketing terms. Their purpose is to sell food products.
— Marion Nestle


How can you use a natural claim?

The lack of an agreed definition both from a regulatory and consumer perspective means natural claims have the potential to unintentionally mislead consumers. With consumer trust in the information provided by food companies tentative at best, it’s important to weigh up your options. If you’re unsure if a natural claim is right for your product or brand, I’d encourage you to think about the following:

  • What are your customers’ expectations of natural? And can you meet them?
  • Will the claim differentiate your product (or is it just a me too claim)?
  • Is there something more specific your consumers want that is, are they trying to avoid preservatives or artificial colours or are they seeking more whole foods or real ingredients?
  • Do your ingredients speak “natural” for themselves?

Already using a “natural” claim? Then keep your eyes out as the discussion around the FDA defining natural develops. With the global lack of definition, the first authority to define natural will likely set a precedent, or at very least draw a line in the sand as a benchmark for the rest of the world.

In summary, “natural” does not have one single meaning when it comes to food and as a result some customers may be seeing it as a health attribute consequently, leaving some companies, brands and products open to potentially misleading messages.

Do you have questions on natural claims? Or want to know how best to communicate your product features? At the Nutrition Providers we love finding unique solutions to meet your customers’ needs.