As the industry pushes for a definition of “natural” to call its own, who will lead the charge?
If it says “natural” it must be true, right? It’s no secret that the term “natural” carries a rather broad meaning in the natural products industry. And because of this, confusion among retailers, suppliers, manufacturers and certainly consumers appears to be at an all-time high when it comes to gaining a clear understanding of whether there is currently a working definition in place, what that definition is or what it should be moving forward. “We have consumers that believe if it says ‘natural’ that is must be true and healthy as well as those consumers that believe the word ‘natural’ is meaningless these days,” said retailer Ken El-Talabani, COO, Sunrise Health Foods, Lansing, IL.
So while it may seem a simple task to the untrained eye to define “natural” within the industry, it just isn’t that easy, according to the many experts who find themselves at the center of the debate. While this discussion rages on and appears to only be gathering momentum, the urgency to complete the task and come up with a comprehensive definition all parties can agree upon and in a timely manner is pressing for the groups involved as well as those most directly affected.
“It’s definitely a top priority for our retailers and members,” said Daniel Fabricant, PhD, executive director and CEO, Natural Products Association (NPA). “In part we have accomplished this in personal care products but the job is not complete. We need to define what “natural” means in food products and we’re making progress in that area. It’s a broad category and we have to determine where the finish line is.”
Fabricant said he believes that the NPA, which has its Natural Seal certification for personal care and home care products in this area, is clearly the group to establish the definition of ‘natural’ within the industry.
“We are the group to define this and we’re taking the lead on it,” Fabricant said. “The consumer wants integrity and transparency and it’s up to us to establish a good definition of ‘natural’ that works within the industry.”
That, of course, means penning a definition that is strong and effective, yet, fully attainable and takes into consideration input from suppliers, manufacturers, their retailer members, as well as listening to what consumers have to say on the topic regarding the source of the confusion.
“It doesn’t make any sense to create a standard that no one can meet,” Fabricant said. “It has to take into account two things; the ingredients and the processes involved. The standard needs to encourage technology and with that comes some degree of flexibility. Only then will we have a good definition of what ‘natural’ means to the industry.” But any definition will need to measure up to retailer and, ultimately, consumer scrutiny. “I think it’s very important to consider this definition from many viewpoints,” said Sunrise Health Foods’ El-Talabani. “It is my hope that the definition will be done in a way that helps steer the consumer to a truly natural product rather than allow a manufacturer to get away with hiding behind a watered-down definition.”
Keeping it Transparent
The big “want” among consumers, retailers and even regulators surrounding the word “natural” appears to be a fairly obvious one … they want to know exactly where the ingredients are coming from. That responsibility falls on the manufacturers, who must be knowledgeable regarding their supply chain, according to Duffy MacKay, ND, senior vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs, Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN). “The principle of supply chain transparency is well established in the current marketplace,” said MacKay. “Retailers, consumers and regulators all want to know where ingredients come from. Manufacturers are required to know everything about their supply chain including how the ingredients are grown or processed, manufactured, shipped and stored.”
According to American Herbal Product Association President Michael McGuffin, defining “natural” will benefit both consumers and the natural products industry alike because “it will help ensure that all companies are held to the same standard.”
MacKay points to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and its new regulations that require manufacturers and importers to know where ingredients come from for all food products, including dietary supplements. GMPs (good manufacturing practices) set manufacturing and record-keeping requirements that establish a record of how the ingredients became a final product, including finished product testing, labeling shipping and storage, according to MacKay.
“Therefore, any claim that a product is ‘natural’ must be truthful and not misleading, MacKay said. “This legal requirement makes it imperative that all stakeholders, including consumers, have the same expectations of what natural means. The lack of an agreed upon expectation of what it means results in an unpredictable environment and confusion. This is evidenced by hundreds of lawsuits, based on products that have used the term ‘natural.’” “With anything like this, part of the problem is that if you ask 10 different people what their definition of natural is you’re likely to get 11 different opinions,” NPA’s Fabricant added.
Gene Bruno, MS, MHS, director of category management at Utah-based Twinlab, manufacturer of vitamins, minerals, sports nutrition products, special formulas and amino acids, said he also recognizes the confusion and frustration in defining “natural” and agrees that finding a middle ground may sound easier than it actually is.
“Personally, I would define ‘natural’ as being derived from natural sources,” Bruno said. “For example, commercially, corn syrup can go through a multi-step process, including hydrolysis and crystallization, to ultimately form ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Since the starting material is corn, I would classify vitamin C as having been derived from natural sources.
“The reason there is so much confusion is that consensus does not exist for the definition,” Bruno continued. “Is a nutraceutical natural if it is derived from natural sources, or is it natural only if it is much closer to its original food form?” For many consumers who are simply looking for truthful and consistent labeling among these products, this can lead to hesitation, distrust and even reluctance to purchase certain products.
“Without a clear and meaningful definition of natural, consumers are left to peruse the shelves and decipher labels, and will become further confused as marketing terminology shifts to words like ‘simply,’” said Karen Howard, CEO and executive director, Organic & Natural Health Association (O&N). “Consumers want to trust in the brands they purchase. That requires transparency, which requires a definition of natural.”
This too, is where natural products retailers can step in with their expertise, guiding customers along the road to the ‘natural’ products they desire while taking the time answer any questions they may have. In other words, retailers can serve as the gatekeepers. “We are constantly working to find the best ways to educate our customers on the nuances of labeling laws in order to help them make the best food choices for their health,” offered Sunrise Health Foods’ El-Talabani.
Some, like United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) President Loren Israelsen, point out that retailers serve as the all-important direct point of connection with consumers. “When you look at our consumers’ interest in buying safe, quality and sustainable products, clarity on what constitutes truly natural products is crucial. Also, our consumers expect retailers to serve as the gatekeeper of products that they can purchase without having to think about labels, ingredient sourcing, agricultural process, appropriate packaging and all of the other components that go into creating great products.”
“It’s critical for retailers to have a clear definition of ‘natural’ to they can effectively identify and stock products that meet consumers’ demand for such products,” added AHPA’s McGuffin.
The Organic vs. Natural Factor
One of the biggest areas of consumer confusion surrounding the definition of “natural” rests with the difference between natural vs. organic. Does natural always mean organic? Just where does the confusion reside?
“There is enormous confusion relating to the definition of natural and previous surveys indicate the consumers often believe ‘natural’ is the same as organic only without the certification,” said Howard. “Consumers also assume that natural products contain no artificial colors, dyes or ingredients. Few, it appears, are aware that natural is not regulated by the federal government.”
In the case of food, a recent class action lawsuit was filed against snack manufacturer UTZ Quality Foods, Inc., in which the plaintiffs alleged that the company genetically modified more than 40 of its snack products, but still advertised them as being “all natural.” “Manufacturers are coming under increased legal activity and class action suits against companies,” Howard said. “Those manufacturers who are making quality, natural products are at a distinct disadvantage as they strive to compete in this ‘fuzzy’ environment. In addition, the confusion regarding what constitutes natural is degrading the organic brand, hurting consumers, farmers and manufacturers of organic products.”
Whose Call Is It, Anyway?
While it is agreed upon by almost all parties involved that a definition of “natural” is clearly needed in the industry sooner than later, the thought process for who should lead this charge and whose input should be sought out varies to some degree. Manufacturers, suppliers, retailers and consumers appear to be on nearly everyone’s wish list, but is there also a place for government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be heard?
“Everyone should be involved, especially those with the technical know-how,” Fabricant said. “That’s a good place to start to. Manufacturers and suppliers and reaching out to consumers and environmental groups and even congressional offices and finally the media. The technology and finding out what’s possible is the most important aspect. The process is important as well as the products and that should be our focus. The standard will evolve from this.”
There is little doubt that all stakeholders should be involved in developing the definition of natural, agreed CRN’s MacKay. “The legal requirement to be truthful and not misleading when using the term suggests that FDA would be in the best position to set a regulation that defines the term as it pertains to the products FDA regulates. The alternative to FDA, or possibly FTC (Federal Trade Commission), defining the term appears to be several organizations with different definitions. This leaves room for different interpretations, and unfortunately leaves manufacturers vulnerable to frivolous legal activity and wasted resources. It’s also important to have one national standard is so that is it not left to be debated or determined in the courts or individual states.
“An official definition for ‘natural’ can set clear guidelines for suppliers, manufacturers, and retailers as to how and when they can use the term,” MacKay said. “It will also foster transparency and manage the expectations of consumers when they are making purchasing decisions.”
“The FDA’s position on defining ‘natural’ is clear,” added Howard. “They have no interest in doing so. Perhaps over time, that position will change as consumers continue to organize and health policy becomes more oriented toward nutrition and health versus the management of disease.”
While much of the discussion surrounding “natural” relates to food products, the NPA has already defined the term for cosmetic and home care products through its Natural Seal certification. But what about finished products, such as dietary supplements, the ingredients that go into them, and the assured safety for consumers?
“While the data suggests that many dietary supplements are safe, natural or not, the use of dietary supplements must always be balanced with any health care condition or treatment an individual may be undergoing,” reminded Howard. “The differential for natural will be comprised on the ingredients themselves, including sourcing, the extraction and the manufacturing processes, and the sustainability program of the company itself.”
Advantage or Danger?
On the surface, establishing a clear definition of “natural” and ending the confusion surrounding this critical industry term appears to be a no-brainer for all parties involved, including retailers, manufacturers, suppliers, and consumers. But is there a hidden danger in creating a strict definition or should perhaps the definition allow for some added flexibility?
“I’m in favor of a broader definition rather than a more stringent one,” Bruno said. “I believe the more stringent the definition, the more difficult it will be gain consensus and put this issue to bed once and for all.”
According to NPA’s Fabricant, the danger rests with creating a standard that no one can meet. “With the evolving technology being important, however, there is likely to be some degree of flexibility.”
“The word ‘natural’ is the foundation of this industry,” added UNPA’s Israelsen. “To lose the term jeopardizes the trust and confidence that we have built up with consumers and threatens the viability of the industry. Without an enforceable definition, the word ‘natural’ will erode in value; some think it has already happened and some believe the value of the word is already lost as having no meaning.”
So When, Then?
Defining “natural” has undoubtedly become a top priority for natural products industry associations and organizations and one that’s very much being eagerly anticipated by retailers, consumers, and manufacturers alike. For retailers, it can mean ending the confusion for their customers and lead to a rewarding shopping experience in their stores. “Consumers are seeking healthy foods on the shelves of their favorite stores and want access to organic and truly natural options for their families,” said ONHA’s Howard. “They are also looking for transparency in marketing, traceability in the ingredients ad sourcing of these products, and are hoping to purchase them from companies who embrace sustainability practices. Retailers will benefit from providing their customers with a full range of options that include products that meet a clear, understandable and meaningful definition of ‘natural.’
With NPA promising to take the lead on this initiative, including a push at the upcoming Natural Products Day in Washington, D.C. this month, the pressing question centers around when the industry might finally have this definition to work with.
“I think by the middle of this year,” Fabricant said. “The cosmetic standard is going strong and it’s time to push to define natural and establish transparency as a benefit to the consumer.” VR
For More Information:
CRN, (202) 776-7929
NPA, (800) 966-6632
O&N, (202) 660-1345
Sunrise Health Foods, (815) 614-2086
Twinlab, (800) 645-5626
UNPA, (801) 474-2572
AHPA, (301) 588-1171