With more consumers keeping an eye out for “natural” options at the grocery store, less than half of those consumers trust the natural label on food products. In fact, according to a new study conducted by the Truthful Labeling Coalition, almost three out of four consumers believe fresh chicken labeled “natural” should not include chicken that has been plumped with added saltwater or other solutions.

USDA estimates 25 percent of all ready-to-cook poultry products are enhanced with added saltwater solutions to make the meat tastier and juicier. However, this practice often winds up adding significantly more sodium to the product. For example, one serving of chicken without the added saltwater contains about 60mg of sodium. Pumped full of saltwater, that same serving can have as much as 400mg of sodium. While this practice could be considered a health concern, it also increases the product weight, so consumers pay more.

“Consumers purchasing fresh, all-natural chicken believe it is a healthy choice,” says Charles Hansen, on behalf of the Truthful Labeling Coalition. “They don’t expect to find high sodium levels in it, nor do they expect to pay for hidden saltwater weight as part of the overall package price.”

Other key findings from the new consumer study include:

  • 65 percent of consumers look for “natural” labels when shopping.
  • Only 44 percent of consumers trust “natural” labels on food products.
  • 78 percent of consumers do not expect fresh chicken labeled “natural” to contain any added solutions.
  • 77 percent of consumers agree that third-party verification of label claims would increase their level of trust.

“These findings show consumers expect much more from ‘natural’ claims,” says Lampkin Butts, president and COO of Sanderson Farms, a TLC member company. “It’s imperative for USDA to act on this important rule. American consumers have already waited far too long.”

FDA is currently mulling over the proper way to regulate and interpret the term “natural” and has extended the comment period on its use on food labeling through May 10.

“Due to the complexity of this issue, FDA is committed to providing the public with more time to submit comments,” FDA says. “FDA will thoroughly review all public comments and information submitted before determining its next steps.”

In part, FDA says it is taking this action because it received three petitions asking the agency to define the term “natural” for use in food labeling and one petition asking the agency to prohibit the term “natural” on food labels. Furthermore, federal courts have requested administrative determinations from FDA regarding whether food products containing ingredients produced using genetic engineering or foods containing high fructose corn syrup may be labeled as “natural.”

FDA has long considered “natural” to mean nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in, or added to, a food that one would not normally expect it to contain.

“However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization or irradiation,” FDA says.

More information can be found here.