Snack Attack 2018

US food and health experts take ‘natural’ labeling down a notch

By Douglas Yu contact

- Last updated on GMT

Just as the FDA decided to take more time to define what ‘natural’ labeling means, a new bunch of naturally positioned snacks once again stormed the market, even though some of them doubt the term itself will ever be regulated.

At the Snack Attack editor showcase in New York recently (April 26, 2018), Regina Ragone, a registered dietician working for the California Fig Advisory Board, told BakeryandSnacks, “although the concept of natural has got a lot of buzz for the last two years, it doesn’t really mean anything.

“[When more consumers] start educating themselves about the labels, I think [the use of natural labeling] is going to decrease,”​ she said

Ragone said the board is currently working with Kellogg and PepsiCo to incorporate figs into snack products to reduce the sugar content and be better positioned as natural.

“We’re targeting manufacturers to teach them what these ingredients can do for them,”​ she said.

Ragone said figs are a Mediterranean fruit that resonates with healthy. They are prebiotic, loaded with fiber and naturally sweet, which is important because consumers looking for natural products are avoiding artificial sweeteners.

Take ‘natural’ out to avoid lawsuits?

US food companies using natural labels have found themselves in legal limbo.

There have been 19 lawsuits​ related to natural labeling as of July 27, 2017, including Walmart’s “all-natural”​ pita chips and General Mills’ granola bars made from “100% natural oats.”

Most recently, KIND Snacks​, which was also sued for its natural claim (this lawsuit has been on hold since 2016), recently asked the judge to dismiss its case because the FDA has yet to regulate the term.

Nearly three years ago, the FDA sought input​ from consumers and the industry to establish a definition for the word “natural.”​ However, it did not reach a conclusion when the comment period closed two years ago.

That made KIND Snacks fear having its case on hold would cause legal prejudice.

In late March 2018, Scott Gottlieb, the FDA’s commissioner, issued a statement​: “We recognize that consumers are trusting in products labeled as ‘natural’ without clarity around the term.

“Just like other claims made on products regulated by FDA, we believe the ‘natural’ claim must be true and based in science,”​ he said.

However, he again, failed to give a timeframe to define the term.

“At this time, we’re unable to speculate on whether we’d formally define ‘natural’ for food labeling,”​ Anne Norris, a FDA spokesperson, told BakeryandSnacks.

The delay on defining the label is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for food manufacturers wanting to take a break from the natural movement.

Nutritionist Julie Upton said the natural category is tough to define because it has to come down to what particular ingredient that truly meets the natural standards.

She hopes manufacturers can identify components, such as fruit, vegetable and whole grain, on their labels instead of using made-up terms to make their products look better than they actually are.

FDA lawyer: ‘nature is not that pretty…’

As long as the term is not legally defined, natural claims-related lawsuits are here to stay, according to Martin Hahn, an FDA lawyer working at Hogan Lovells LLP.

He noted, similar to slack fill cases, natural labeling remains a target for many impending class action lawsuits.

“I can’t tell you whether soy oils are natural or not because the soybeans are genetically modified... lawyers are claiming things like soy lecithin is refined, so it’s an artificial ingredient [in their suits]… but the natural market continues to grow,”​ he said.

However, he also played devil’s advocate as to why consumers want natural products.

“I grew up on a pig farm, and nature is not that pretty. Why are people so interested in natural?”​ he asked. “The organic movement has given the chickens the ability to walk around freely outside. But there are raccoons, hawks and eagles out there, and they eat live chickens. Being outside is not always a good thing.”

“I don’t want to recognize natural as a lost cause, but, at least, I hope we have some type of reform,”​ said Hahn.

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