Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

When I recall the intersection of “natural” food products and my consumer existence, the first things I think of are wheat germ and granola.

My mom used to purchase both items in the 1970s when I was a youngster. As I remember, wheat germ tasted fine on ice cream, and granola was a nice change of pace from Carnation Instant Breakfast.

Though the wheat germ fad was short-lived (whatever happened to wheat germ anyway?), it was that point in time I came to see, in fledging consumer consciousness, that a certain class of food was especially healthy, or at least claimed to be.

Fast-forward to 2014, and food marketers are still trying to seize the high ground for “healthy” food.

As it turns out, everything that is not fresh fruits and vegetables must put forward a case that it is good for you.

One of the words that has been co-opted by packaged food marketers is “natural.”

The Consumer Reports National Research Center recently released a study that revealed 59% of consumers check to see if the products they are buying are “natural,” despite the fact that there is no federal or third party verified label for the term.

The study said that while a majority of people think that the “natural” label actually carries specific benefits, even more said it should, according to a news release from Consumer Reports.

In the face of the marketing industry’s outrageous use of “natural” (what is “natural” about Natty Light beer? Have you ever seen an ingredient list for beer?) and “all natural” on the labels of juices containing ingredients cyanocobalamin, Fibersol-2 and pyridoxine hydrochloride (see Naked Juice), Consumer Reports has come out in favor of killing the “natural” term on food labels.

“Due to overwhelming and ongoing consumer confusion around the ‘natural’ food label, we are launching a new campaign to kill the ‘natural’ label because our poll underscores that it is misleading, confusing, and deceptive,” Urvashi Rangan, executive director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability group, said in a news release.

“We truly don’t believe there is a way to define it that will meet all of consumers’ expectations.”

The Consumer Reports poll reveals 92% of consumers support local growers, favor protecting the environment from chemicals (89%), reducing exposure to pesticides (87%), fair conditions for workers (86%), good living conditions for animals (80%), and reducing antibiotic use in food (78%).

Consumer Reports said that one term that is working as intended and meeting consumer expectations is “organic.”

“While there is room for improvement, the ‘organic’ label already largely meets consumer expectations,” the summary report said.

While the organic label is well-trusted, the Organic Trade Association and its members are actively considering the idea of a collective research and marketing program with oversight from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand the reach and benefits of organic food.

The lesson for the fresh fruit and vegetable industry is to resist the urge to do nothing.

While it is true that the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables have always been self-evident, the industry can’t afford to rest on its laurels.

A generic promotion marketing program for fresh fruits and vegetables could do heavy lifting for the industry in the consumer market place.

It could reinforce the steady drumbeat of positive press and nudge the idle consumption needle.

Healthy? Superfood and powerhouse food only begin to describe the benefits.

Natural? As natural as a summer day.

Local? As local as you want to be.

With one voice, the industry should be promoting the extensive and continuing evidence of the health benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables, regardless of the source.

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