How Cheetos Taught PepsiCo That It Ain't Easy Being Cheesy—or Natural

Several snacks will now be labeled 'simply' instead of 'simply natural.'

(Photo: Paul Taylor/Getty Images)

Jan 28, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Has PepsiCo quit trying to convince us that there’s such a thing as a “natural” Cheeto?

Astute shoppers may already have noticed what The Associated Press reports: PepsiCo’s beige line of “Simply Natural,” which appeared on Frito-Lay chip products, has been simply reduced to, well, “Simply.”

Huh? “Simply” what?

That’s it: just “Simply.” PepsiCo seems happy to let you fill in the blank left by the company’s unceremonious cut of the much beloved, oft misunderstood, increasingly controversial three-syllable label food makers will try to slap on just about anything: “Natural.”

Whether it’s preceded by “100%” or “All-” or just left purely, unassailably alone, “natural” is hands-down one of the most powerful labels in big food’s marketing arsenal, the cereal-box equivalent of putting Meryl Streep’s name on the movie marquee.

A 2009 survey by one marketing consultant group, for example, found that while 35 percent of survey participants rated the label “organic” as either important or very important to their purchasing decisions, “natural” scored significantly higher, at 50 percent.

This despite that a veritable raft of regulations governs what products food makers can market as “organic”—while there is virtually no legal definition for “natural.” Yep, almost none.

True, the Food and Drug Administration gets a little miffed when companies try to hawk products as “natural” when they contain very unnatural additives or preservatives, and those companies may get a stern warning letter. But in reality, the FDA hasn’t tried to come up with a legal, enforceable definition for “natural” since the early 1990s.

Why? It’s just too darn tough, the FDA has claimed. Although the agency initiated a formal rule-making process back in 1993 and solicited public comments, it quickly abandoned the effort, pleading lack of funding and an overwhelming number of “facets” to the issue.

You don’t even have to be stoned to get a little tripped out if you just think about the word “natural” too long—a seemingly innocent mental ramble that leads you down a philosophical, ontological, etymological rabbit hole.

There was nothing “natural,” for example, about the unnatural selection that led to a whole array of cultivated crops, from corn to apples to soybeans (and this is long before any notion of genetic engineering). Is anything that humans tinker with “natural,” or does that tinkering, by its very nature, render said thing unnatural? The FDA has often objected to the use of additives and preservatives such as calcium chloride or citric acid in foods labeled “natural”—but we’re talking about “natural” elements, aren’t we?

One can quickly come to the conclusion that either everything is natural or nothing (that humans touch, at least) is natural, and that’s not very helpful when it comes to labeling your granola bars—where PepsiCo's “Natural Quaker Granola” is now suddenly “Simply Quaker Granola.”

So if there’s no legal definition for “natural,” why is PepsiCo dropping it from a whole line of chips and other products?

While the FDA may be ridiculously wary about trying to define what’s “natural,” a number of public advocacy and consumer groups aren’t, and they’re relying on state laws and even the FDA’s own wavering guidance to challenge the widespread use of “natural” on arguably not-so-natural products.

PepsiCo has faced lawsuits (and capitulated) over its use of “all natural” on its Naked line of juices, which may also have led to the company’s decision to ax its “Gatorade Natural” line.

In recent years, other brands have faced legal challenges over use of the word "natural," including Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, Capri Sun, 7-Up, Nature Valley granola bars, and even that toddler fave, Goldfish crackers.

And if someone was going to take Nature Valley to court over its granola bars, PepsiCo may just have realized it was only a matter of time before someone else cast a dubious legal eye on any claim that Cheetos could ever be marketed as “natural,” even if it did abandon the artificial coloring that gives the originals their radioactive blaze.