Earlier this month, a study published in the Journal of Food Science confirmed just how willing consumers are to fall for a label like "all-natural" on our food, even if the phrase is utterly meaningless. A team of researchers at Ohio State University’s Food Science and Technology Department asked 120 participants—48 male and 72 female, whose ages ranged from 18 to 65—to participate in a virtual reality experiment in which they’d saunter through a grocery store and shop for peanut butter.
Participants were put in two scenarios, and in both, the underlying product—Justin’s Peanut Butter—was the same. In the first, customers were faced with two peanut butter jars, one with an "all-natural" label, the other without. Most customers indicated that they were more compelled to buy the product labeled "all-natural" due to their perception of its higher nutritional value. The second scenario, though, yielded more surprising results. When participants encountered a cashier who relayed, verbally, that one product was all-natural, respondents said they were willing to pay roughly $0.30 cents more—that’s an 8% hike—for this jar of peanut butter than for an unlabeled one. It was a form of social confirmation in which shoppers perceived store employees to be experts when it came to food, thus influencing their willingness to pay more.
It’s a study that stresses the potency of social interactions, especially with perceived figures of authority, on our dietary habits. These findings also further reinforce there's a need for these labels, deployed so widely by companies in a way that’s misleading and counterfactual, to be revised—and for regulatory bodies to define this phrase, if it’s to be used at all.
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What does the phrase “all-natural” even mean these days, especially when it’s slapped on foods with high fructose corn syrup? The FDA hasn't clarified much. Though companies like Quaker and KIND have, rightly, come under fire for using this phrase on their product labeling, the trend persists. In late 2015, the FDA opened up a call for comment on “all natural” food labeling after being hit with a soft flurry of petitions asking for the FDA to act on the number of companies stretching this phrase's definition. The FDA, in May of last year, concluded that they wouldn't object to the use of this phrase so long as the product in question doesn't contain synthetic additives. Earlier this year, the FDA doubled down on its earlier stance.
I’ll admit to being susceptible to this tendency: There have been numerous instances when I've caught myself gravitating towards an all-natural label when it's on a bag of chips. The very presence of those words—foolishly, I know—makes me feel a bit better about where my money's going. It’s a label as enticing as “organic”; I’ll never say no to a box of Annie’s fruit snacks. Guess I should start being more skeptical!
Do you tend to buy products that are labeled "all-natural"—or pay more for them? Let us know in the comments.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.