At first it may seem only right for Dean Foods Co., the nation's largest organic dairy producer, to roll out a line of yogurts and milk marketed as "natural." But Dean's announcement last week alarmed advocates of organic food, who say the burgeoning market for less-expensive "natural" foods reaps billions from consumers while guaranteeing little or nothing in exchange.
Certified organic food products are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and are produced by farmers and manufacturers under a strict set of rules. But the agency defines the term "natural" only for meat and poultry. In the rest of the food industry, the meaning is largely up to the producer.
Adding to advocates' concerns, a new study shows wide confusion among American consumers about products aimed at the green market. Many mistakenly believe that "natural" is a greener term than "organic."
"They felt 'organic' was just a fancy way of saying 'expensive,' " said Suzanne Shelton, president and chief executive of Shelton Group, which conducted the survey and specializes in marketing sustainability to mainstream consumers. "They think 'natural' is regulated by the government but that 'organic' isn't, and of course it's just the opposite."
The U.S. natural food market grew 10% to $12.9 billion from 2007 to 2008, the Nutrition Business Journal said.
Some observers suspect that companies will watch Dean's new venture to see if they can shed cumbersome, expensive organic standards.
"Our fear is that they are going to blur this line" between organic and natural, said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit organic industry watchdog group. "The concern is they'll help destroy organics or at least chip away a substantial part of it."
Dean's natural dairy line is being launched by its Horizon Organic brand and will be cheaper than organic options.
Sara Loveday, the brand's communications manager, said Horizon had created its own definition of "natural."
"To us, it means it's produced without added hormones, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup," Loveday said.
That's a good start, said Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for Cornucopia.
"But Dean Foods will not be able to [say] the products are produced without pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and other drugs or genetically modified feed crops, or that the cows are required to graze in pastures rather than confined to factory farm feedlots," he said.
"These are all factors that truly differentiate organic production from natural/conventional agricultural and livestock production."
The new products will hit shelves this month with Little Blends, 4-ounce natural yogurts flavored with fruits and vegetables and aimed at toddlers. A second product, 6-ounce boxes of vanilla and chocolate milk called Milk Breakers, will be test-marketed next month in Florida.
Loveday said the new products would feature Horizon Organic's familiar spotted cow, which has advocates worried about consumer confusion.
"The move feels sneaky," said Dawn Brighid, spokeswoman for Sustainable Table, a nonprofit online resource about sustainable food. "The average mom won't know about the change, and most people are still unclear about the difference between 'natural' and 'organic.' . . . I'm afraid they won't understand what they are getting."
Marion Nestle, nutrition professor at New York University and author of "What to Eat," said the new, lower-cost products would undercut Horizon's organic lines.
But Loveday contended that they would help support the operation through a market glut of organic milk.
"The more profitable the overall brand the better," Loveday said. "We are dedicated to organic, but innovation is one way to grow your business as a whole and continue to support those farmers."
When the "natural" label is applied to more processed foods, the picture grows even more complicated. According to market research firm Mintel International, "all natural" was the second-most-common claim on new food products launched in 2008.
Many brands apply it to products with long lists of ingredients not available to the average home cook.
For Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a good standard for natural ingredients would be "minimally processed," a stipulation the USDA uses for natural meat and poultry.
"If you have to have a lab in your own kitchen to create the substance, then it should not be considered a minimally processed ingredient," he said.
By that measure, Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby "all natural" ice cream containing partially hydrogenated soybean oil, soya lecithin and cocoa processed with alkali would not qualify.
"Don't be fooled by products labeled 'natural,' " said Marcia Schurer, author of "FitDelicious" and president of Culinary Connections, a consulting and training firm. "Consumers should . . . look for ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible."
Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, who also criticizes Dean Foods for recently switching its Silk soy milk from organic to conventional, noted that Cornucopia was a stakeholder in the company, having received a donation of Dean Foods stock at its founding.
"We obviously have an investment in Dean, and we have nothing against profits," he said. "It just makes me mad when I see a company that attempts to profiteer at the expense of these hardworking farmers who have built the organic industry. I fear they are going to blur the lines between natural and organic, and I think someone needs to educate the public."