The Surprising Reason Fewer Foods Are Being Labeled 'Natural'

Though it has been a lucrative part of marketing, companies have been getting sued for describing less-than-natural food as natural.

(Photo: Martin Ruegner/Getty Images; design: Lauren Wade)

Nov 12, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Food activists swallowed yet another loss this month when Washington voters rejected a ballot measure requiring food products to disclose the use of genetically modified ingredients, but labeling advocates are quietly winning on another front: use of the term “all natural."

A slew of major food companies—from PepsiCo to Pepperidge Farm—have stopped using the term after being targeted by lawsuits that allege the term is leading consumers into believing ingredients are organic and unprocessed, though they often aren't either.

Not all companies are letting go of the term easily, and for good reason: It works. Food labeled “natural” accounted for $40 billion in retail sales over the last year, topped only by product claims of “low fat.”

“Many people think 'natural' means more than organic,” says Urvash Rangan, Ph.D., director of consumer safety and sustainability for Consumers Union. “We think it should be banned all together. It does a huge disservice to the marketplace.”

Confusion over the term lands squarely in the lap of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has refused to develop a clear and legal definition of "natural." Instead, its website says it’s “difficult to define a food product that is natural.”

That lack of definition has stalled several lawsuits, including one this summer involving Mission tortilla chips. In some instances, judges have put cases on hold while they wait for the FDA to define the term.

Steve Gardner, litigation director for Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is involved in the deceptive marketing lawsuit against General Mills Nature Valley products, says he doesn’t believe the FDA will define the term any time in the near future. The real question, he says, isn’t the precise definition of the term.

“The question is, Are consumers being deceived?” he says. “Consumers are buying products thinking they’re getting a natural product when they aren’t. And now, companies are starting to get rid of the word 'natural,' and they ought to because they shouldn’t have lied to begin with, because it’s a marketplace deception.”

Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers will no longer tout the term “natural” on packages of the kid-friendly grinning snacks, after the company was targeted in a class action lawsuit in June.

In July, PepsiCo coughed up $9 million and agreed to stop using the term “all natural” on its Naked Juice products after the company agreed to settle a class action lawsuit—though it denies any wrongdoing.

“All natural” labels have vanished from Frito-Lay products as well, after several lawsuits challenged the use of the term on products such as Tostitos, Sun Chips, and Rold Gold pretzels, which include genetically modified ingredients and additives.

In September, Cargill settled a federal lawsuit that claimed consumers were duped by “natural” claims on products containing the sweetener Stevia. Like Frito-Lay, the company denied any wrongdoing but paid $5 million to a settlement fund anyway.

During this morning's stroll down my neighborhood supermarket's chip aisle, the only items I could find that still sported the words "all natural" on the packaging were Popcorn Indiana products such as Kettle Corn and American Cheese Corn.

But not every case is a sure winner.

Last month, a California judge dismissed a case against Nestle brand Buitoni products.

"The reasonable consumer is aware that Buitoni pastas are not springing fully-formed from Ravioli trees and Tortellini bushes,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter.

There is hope that the current Food Labeling Modernization bill will force the FDA to act. Wording in the bill bans use of the term "natural" when using ingredients that have undergone chemical changes, including corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, high-maltose corn syrup, maltodextrin, chemically modified starch, and cocoa processed with alkali.

In the meantime, companies may follow the lead of Barbara’s Bakery, maker of Puffins cereal, which paid $4 million this summer to settle a suit. The company changed its logo from “All Natural Since 1971” to simply “Since 1971” and is embracing terms such as “wholesome,” “nutritious,” and “minimally processed” instead.