“Natural” foods convey a sense of wholesomeness, without additives, chemicals, and preservatives, to consumers, finds The NPD Group, a global information company. On the surface, “natural” and “all natural” on a food label hints to consumers that the product is free of anything manmade, but that isn’t always the case, and consumers have requested that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explore the use of the term. In direct response to consumers and what the FDA stated is the “changing landscape of food ingredients and production,” the federal agency announced in mid-November it was seeking public comments on the use of the term “natural” in food labeling.

In terms of “natural” labeling today, the FDA issued non-legally binding guidance on “natural” labeling in the 1990s that states, “nothing artificial or synthetic – including all color additives regardless of source – has been included in or added to a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.” This guidance allows for foods or beverages with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), for example, to still be labeled as natural.

What has changed since the 1990s are consumers’ concerns about some of the ingredients in what they eat and drink. There is emerging evidence that consumers are looking for foods to be in their pure form. Today more than 30% of consumers are cautious about serving foods with preservatives compared to 24 percent ten years ago, and the trend for additives follows the same progression. High fructose corn syrup and GMOs are two of the top-growing concerns in the United States. Much of their concern, however, stems from negative publicity, not science, and lack of knowledge. An NPD report, Gauging GMO Awareness and Impact, shows one of the most common answers to the question of what is a GMO was “I don’t know.”

Prominent natural and organic retailers have stepped into the national GMO discussion by labeling “GMO-free” any products that meet the qualifications. Manufacturers have also decided to call out GMO-free foods.