As Pret A Manger ads are banned over wording, what does ‘natural’ food actually mean?

It might not mean what you think it means…

Press Association
Last updated: 18 April 2018 - 1.51pm

Looking for a sandwich on the go? It makes sense to reach for one that’s affordable, looks good and isn’t obviously highly processed or plasticky. Spot the word ‘natural’ on a BLT in fact, and you’re likely to assume you’re in safe hands.

[Read more: How do you make your own pesto?]

However, that might not always be the case. Two ads for the Pret A Manger sandwich chain have been banned for implying that its products are ‘natural’.

It turns out Pret’s sandwich bread actually contained three E-numbers: E472e used to strengthen dough and reduce large holes; E471 used to soften the crumb, and E300 (Vitamin C).

Pret A Manger takeover

Pret said its mission statement was to “create handmade, natural food, avoiding the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the ‘prepared’ and ‘fast’ food on the market today”. The company told the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) the statement was “expressed as a ‘mission’ and was therefore an ideal state or their ultimate goal” and, as such, “very different from a claim that Pret A Manger had arrived at that ideal state”.

So what should “natural food” stand for? 

The Food Standards Authority (FSA) defines ‘natural’ as meaning that “the product is comprised of natural ingredients, e.g. ingredients produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man.”

It notes that “it is misleading to use the term to describe foods or ingredients that employ chemicals to change their composition or comprise the products of new technologies, including additives and flavourings that are the product of the chemical industry or extracted by chemical processes.”

So if your food has been tampered with or bolstered with additives, the label shouldn’t say ‘natural’ on it.

farmer holding box with fresh organic vegetables (Thinkstock/PA)
How natural is natural? (Thinkstock/PA)

The word “natural” isn’t always used correctly

It’s a phrase regularly used by the food, health and beauty industries – how often have you read something’s “100% natural”? – but that doesn’t always mean the ingredients match the ad on the front of the item, and while the FSA offers guidance on using the term, that guidance is not always followed or enforced.

“Claims such as ‘natural goodness’, ‘naturally better’, or ‘nature’s way’ are confusing and ambiguous,” explains the FSA. “They should not be used and are very likely to be misleading if applied to products not meeting the ‘natural criteria’.”

What can you do?

Whether you’re buying a sandwich or grabbing some shampoo, always check the ingredients list. Look out for E numbers, which are legal, but will indicate whether colours, preservatives, antioxidants, sweeteners, emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickeners and gelling agents have been added. And if there is something listed you can’t pronounce or haven’t heard of before, look it up.

If something claims to be ‘natural’ despite listing additives on the label, contact the brand directly, or raise it with the ASA.

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