Retail Answers Consumer Calls for Organic and Natural Products. But Are Shoppers Aware of what ‘Natural’ Means?


Organic and natural foods and household products are found today in most homes in America and around the world.

Once merely labels and categories for fringe food fads, terms such as “organic,” “natural,” and “healthy” have become mainstream among consumers.

A vast majority of shoppers are asking retailers for organic, natural, earth-friendly, or “healthier” food, and other household products. They’re also demanding non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) food, edibles which are free of synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, artificial preservatives, and artificial anything, and everyday household items such as cleaning solutions and pest control products to adhere to a higher standard.

The demand started popping up several years, and has been on the upswing since then. According to a recent Supermarket News report, natural food and beverage sales grew 9.2 percent to $75 billion in 2016. And, organic sector sales in the United States reached nearly $47 billion in 2016 — a nearly $3.7 billion boost in sales from the previous year, according to Organic Trade Association.

Retailers, supermarkets, groceries and other specialty stores, are responding in-kind, embracing this movement that’s marching to the beat of the consumer call for more healthy and organic products with less of a negative environmental impact.

What’s more, businesses seem to be doubling-down on their bet that the demand for organics and naturals will grow. That’s probably a safe bet. Retailers already know many customers will pay more for these products.

For example, meat from grass-fed animals cost significantly more than meat from animals with a less-natural food source. The same is true for fruits and vegetables deemed to be organic. A few years ago, the United States government stepped in to regulate what can be labeled organic. That came not too long after the government mandate for retailers to reveal through proper labeling the country of origin for fruits, vegetables, and other edible items.

There are entire grocery stores and retails chains dedicated to demands for organic, natural, earth-friendly products. One well-known example is Whole Foods. Years ago, a business model such as Whole Foods would have been classified as a niche health food store. Not any more!

What used to be called “mainstream supermarkets” now have numerous aisles dedicated to these products. Even the smaller local grocery stores have well-stocked sections with natural, earth-friendly, or organic food and household options for shoppers.

Today’s prevalent mindset of “be more aware of what we’re putting into our bodies” has given an even bigger platform for those people who are voicing an overarching demand for a more safe and sustainable food chain — as well as a safer and more sustainable planet.

We’ve seen millions of individuals calling for this. We’ve seen, to a certain extent, the U.S. government pass and enforce some helpful regulations and laws.

So, what part should the business world play in all of this? “The lead part,” says Kari Warberg Block, CEO and founder of EarthKind, an American-based pest control developer and bio-manufacturing pioneer of two leading consumer brands. The company develops and sells natural and proactive alternatives to effectively deal with pests in a way that is kind towards humans, pets, and the environment.

“Companies should be at the forefront of finding ways to protect the health of humans and animals, and protect the earth — all while giving people the things they need, such as food,” Warberg Block said. “Whether we’re talking about food or pest control, people benefit from having healthier and safer options. Don’t we, as businesses, owe it to our customers to give them those healthier, safer and more natural options?”

For her company to achieve its mission of reducing people’s reliance on harmful pest control products from 90 percent these days to 50 percent by the year 2020, Warberg Block said reaching that goal involves empowering people with education.

Education is equally important to the customers who want organic and natural food choices in their local markets, grocery chain stores, and specialty shops. Why? Because some people aren’t clear about the difference between organic and natural, according to a recent Consumer Reports magazine article. In previous years, Consumer Reports led an effort to get the term “natural” banned from food labels.

“We’ve seen time and again that majority of consumers believe the ‘natural’ label means more than it does, and by buying ‘natural’ foods, they may think they’re getting the same benefits as organic, but for less money,” Urvashi Rangen, Ph.D., the director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center, said in the that Consumer Reports article.

That same Consumer Reports article explains that the terms “natural” and “organic” are not synonymous: “Consumers attribute all sorts of benefits to the term—no antibiotics, no artificial colors, no GMOs, no synthetic pesticides. Organic means all those things but “natural” does not. In fact, there is no standard definition for “natural” foods at all.”

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not developed a formal definition for “natural,” the FDA’s website outlines the agency’s longstanding policy regarding the word “natural” appearing on labels of food for human.

The federal agency’s website states:

“The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color 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.  However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.” 

In November 2015, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began seeking public comments about the placement of the word “natural” on food labels after receiving three citizens petitions asking the agency to prohibit the placement of “natural” on food labels, according to the FDA’s website. The public was asked to comment specifically on: (1) Whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural”, (2) If so, how the FDA should define the term, and (3) How the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.

The comment period closed May 10, 2016, the FDA has not prohibited, or established any rules concerning, the use of the term “natural” on labels of foods for humans.

That hasn’t stopped many shoppers from buying massive amounts of food and other products labeled “natural,” nor is it likely to deter the next generation of consumers who want healthier and more environmentally friendly, “earth-friendly” options in the marketplace.