And you wouldn’t have been the only one, according to consumer advocacy group Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE), who say there has been an increased interest from consumers in health and nutrition, due, at least in part, to revived interest in health in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic
This has made the term “natural” increasingly more appealing for consumers, and increasingly lucrative for those providing them.
But a new report from the group, published on Thursday (19 November), has flagged concerns over the use of the term ‘natural’ to describe food products, warning that for many products, such a label may be misleading.
The report analysed the composition of hundreds of products currently available on the market, including a number of soft drinks, sauces and sweets.
It found that many using a “natural” claim, including phrases such as “100% natural” and “all natural ingredients”, included synthetic substances such as flavourings and synthetic E numbers.
This is misleading consumers, the advocacy group warned, arguing that clearly defining what a natural product means is key to consumers’ peace of mind and in helping them choose more sustainable options.
“An average consumer does not have the proper knowledge to identify and understand the composition of most of the products available on the market. The term ‘natural’ is overused, being applied on products which contain chemical substances,” the report reads.
It comes on the back of a growing debate around sustainability labelling and how best to enable consumers in making healthy, sustainable and informed choices, a theme which features heavily in the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy.
While the use of the term is not outlawed, the EU does not currently offer a legal definition of what can be considered ‘natural’.
However, the general principles of Article 7 of the EU regulation on food information to consumers apply to the use of this term.
This article stipulates that food information “shall not be misleading,” particularly as to the characteristics of the food, including its nature, as well as its identity, properties, and country of origin, among others.
A reference to the term ‘natural’ can be found in the annex of the EU regulation on health claims, although it does not require any clear condition to be fulfilled by food producers to use the term. The same goes for the EU regulation on flavourings, which provides for the possibility to use the term ‘natural’ for flavouring substances or flavouring preparations.
“Specific information requirements laid down in that legislation should ensure that consumers are not misled concerning the source material used for the production of natural flavourings,” an EU source told EURACTIV, adding that, in particular, if the term ‘natural’ is used to describe a flavour, the flavouring components used should be entirely of natural origin.
However, these references do not go far enough, the advocacy group says, adding that the legal ambiguity over the use of the term is leading to its misuse.
“The Farm to Fork strategy represents a great opportunity to finally create an EU sustainable labelling framework up to EU consumers expectations and current environmental challenges. However, we are going to lose this chance if the EU does not develop stringent labelling requirements, such as the definition of ‘natural’ for EU food products,” warned Floriana Cimmarusti, secretary-general of SAFE.
An EU source told EURACTIV that, while the Commission is open to considering proposals to improve legislation, there is currently “no concrete plan to define the term ‘natural’ for its general use on food labelling”.
EURACTIV also reached out to FoodDrinkEurope, who represent the EU food and drinks industry, but they declined to comment.