Barely a week goes by without another food company being challenged in court over its use of the word ‘natural’ – and it’s just a matter of time before the claim loses its front-and-center on-pack appeal.
The makers of Tropicana orange juice, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, SunChips, Tostitos, and Snapple are among the many companies that have been asked to justify their use of the word ‘natural’ in court in recent months. Meanwhile, the term remains popular – but for how long?
According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, about 13% of new food and beverage products launched in 2011 touted that they were ‘all-natural’ on-pack. Given that this is a very loosely regulated term, and consumers increasingly are seeking out natural foods, ‘all-natural’ has long seemed like a winning claim for food companies.
But a rash of lawsuits challenging its use is raining on the all-natural parade.
Kellogg-owned Kashi was subject to a very public drubbing when its ‘all-natural’ cereal was pulled from supermarket shelves for containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients, landing the company a class action suit. Kashi’s GoLean shakes similarly were challenged over the naturalness or otherwise of their ingredient list. And other companies have also seen court action over the use of natural claims for products containing GM ingredients, including ConAgra’s Wesson-brand cooking oils and Frito-Lay’s Tostitos.
All eyes on California
At least on the GM issue, there is room for a legal precedent of sorts to be set in November, if the Californian public votes to outlaw the use of the word ‘natural’ on foods containing GM ingredients. GMO labeling is to be included on the ballot after a campaign that gained nearly a million signatures, and companies across the country will be watching closely. If the measure passes, it’s unlikely that many national food manufacturers would redraft their labels for California alone.
However, the natural debate goes much further than GM.
Can a product be ‘all-natural’ if it contains added vitamins, for example? Does the use of ethanol in the extraction of stevia-derived sweeteners render them unnatural? On these questions, a California judge said earlier this month that no reasonable consumer would be misled by the presence of these ingredients in a product labeled all-natural– even though a (presumably unreasonable) consumer thought strongly enough the other way to take the issue to court.
Could you clarify, FDA?
The FDA has been stubbornly evasive on the issue. It doesn’t have a definition of what natural is, just what it isn’t. I’ve asked repeatedly whether a clearer definition might be on the cards, given the multiple legal challenges, but the answer remains:
“FDA has not established a formal definition for the term "natural", however the agency has not objected to the use of the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. Use of the term "natural" is not permitted in the ingredient list, with the exception of the phrase "natural flavorings".”
All clear then? Er, not really.
‘Truthful and not misleading’ has turned out to be rather subjective, as the ongoing wave of class actions would testify.
So what’s the alternative?
A poll conducted by this website late last year found that nearly two-thirds of readers would like the FDA to come up with a formal definition of natural, but I think the regulatory minefield it would open up makes that unlikely, with modified starches, high fructose corn syrup and GMOs among the many prime candidates for debate.
Instead, I foresee more specific claims like ‘no artificial colors or flavors’ gaining at natural’s expense.
Consumers are clear that they want natural foods, although they may have various ideas of what that means. Now it’s up to companies to pinpoint exactly what consumers are looking for – whether it’s plant-derived ingredients, non-GMO, or no artificial preservatives – and put these more solid terms on-pack.
They’re also less likely to end up in court.