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By Martha C. White
January 27, 2016
Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—Getty Images (5)

Manufacturers slap the word “natural” onto food labels all the time, but what does that really mean? Can it (and should it) include GMO foods? Can it include foods with preservatives, coloring agents or other additives? If so, which ones?

These are the questions that vex health-minded grocery shoppers, and the F.D.A. isn’t always as helpful as you might think. Currently, “natural” is one of those vague words that resonates with consumers but doesn’t have an official definition — which some consumer advocates have said leaves the door wide-open for abuses and misleading marketing.

A new study from Consumer Reports says more than half of Americans look for the word natural when they go grocery shopping, “often in the false belief that they’re produced without genetically modified organisms, hormones, pesticides, or artificial ingredients.”

The magazine took a look at a slew of common, name-brand groceries that purport to be natural foods, either by having the word in their name or somewhere on the packaging, and did a deep dive into their ingredients lists. They found chemical-derived preservatives like potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate, caramel coloring, cellulose powder (a wood-pulp product that’s used as an anti-caking agent) and other things that, at best, stretch the definition of “natural.” At worst, this labeling misleads shoppers about what they’re putting into their bodies and feeding their families.

Read next: 5 Ways You’re Being Duped by Food & Drink Labels

Consumer Reports has asked the F.D.A. to stop the labeling free-for-all by banning the word “natural” on food products, and it has a petition consumers can sign in support of the cause.

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The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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