Because corn is an ingredient at high risk for GMO contamination, Hain Celestial prefers to prominently feature the Non-GMO Project Verified stamp on its Garden of Eatin' tortilla chips.

The fall of natural

Only a few years ago, the word natural swept through bakery and snack aisles. Consumers expressed distaste for artificial ingredients and wanted to eat food made with things they recognized. The word natural on food packages drew them in and conveyed a perception of better-for-you food.

“Consumers are hip to what goes in products, and they’re categorically suspicious of food corporations and agribusiness,” Mr. Letchinger said. “ ‘Natural’ comes from the right place but is overused to communicate things that are not natural because there is no standard of what it means.”

The term natural was never defined by the Food & Drug Administration, leaving the definition up to marketers to manipulate and consumers to discern for themselves. Without a standardized definition, natural has become a doormat for lawsuits between food companies and consumers over misunderstandings of what the term means.

“Natural doesn’t really communicate,” Mr. Letchinger continued. “It’s a nebulous term that means everything and nothing at the same time, and it’s controversial because it invites litigation.”

Even though natural is a misleading term that marketers and shoppers don’t see eye-to-eye on, consumers’ needs and wants largely remain the same. They still want ingredients they recognize, nothing artificial and nutrition from whole grains, protein and fiber. Conveying that message without the umbrella term natural is the challenge marketing teams now face.

“We’ve moved away from putting natural on the front of our packaging, but I would say, for a company like Hain Celestial, we’re excited about that move,” Mr. Hartmann said. “We’ve always been and always will be natural, but it’s allowed us to speak to consumers at a higher level.”

That higher level gives food companies the opportunity to be more specific in what their snacks and baked goods can offer people in ways of ingredients and nutrition. It also has pushed them to back up those claims with recognizable certifications such as the Whole Grains Council, Gluten-free Certification Organization, US Department of Agriculture Organic and Non-GMO Project.

Joe Papiri, vice-president, marketing, Snak King, City of Industry, CA, said in the current climate of lawsuits over packaging claims, validating those claims with research and certifications is of the utmost importance. “We’re taking a really conservative view with claims. If we put something on our packaging, we vet it so that we can say it’s accurate,” he said. “We’re going through a lot of validation to make sure it’s right.” Because it’s important to Snak King that the public knows the nutrition of its products, “We’re obligated to get the word out to the public,” Mr. Papiri explained. “The public would like to know.”