ben & jerry's

In August of last year, Pepsico’s Naked Juice division settled a lawsuit for $9 million over  misuse of the word “natural” to describe some of its products. What could be more natural than juice?

As it turns out, the juice wasn’t all that natural. Some contained synthetic ingredients (in the brand’s smoothies, not juices), and there were also concerns that some of the products also contained genetically modified ingredients.

Naked Juice was not the first company to face lawsuits over the use of the word “natural” (and derivations). Campbell’s Soup, Tropicana, Cargill, ConAgra, Tostitos, SunChips, Snapple and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream have all faced similar suits for making “natural” claims on foods that either contain genetically modified ingredients, or chemicals and processes that “do not occur in nature.”

It all begs the question “what is natural anyway?”

Comedian George Carlin pointed out that everything on our planet is “natural” as the definition of the word means “of nature.” Meteors and aliens aside, we can see that he’s not wrong, not technically, even when it comes to genetically modified corn chips.

So, why then are companies being sued left and right over such an ostensibly harmless—and quite literally—accurate word? Even the “natural food” sector has seen its share of issues. Barbara’s Bakery, Kashi, Whole Foods Market and Peace cereal brands were all exposed as containing genetically modified ingredients even despite their longstanding placement in health food stores across the country.

USA Today reports, “Part of the problem, lawyers agree, is that consumers are looking for healthier products, and companies have responded by creating and branding their products as ‘all natural.'” But the result has been costly for big food companies. Brands have begun ditching the word from products and marketing materials because of the growing number of lawsuits. Campaigns like Green America’s GMO Inside have been so effective at putting pressure on brands that both General Mills and Post recently announced their flagship cereals—Cheerios and Grape-Nuts—are now GMO-free. Grape-Nuts has even received Non-GMO Project verification. Vani Hari, the blogger better known as “Food Babe” exposed Chik-fil-A’s ingredients, and the company wound up reformulating and removing many of the questionable ingredients after she visited their headquarters. She was also instrumental in getting Kraft to remove some of the artificial colors from its Macaroni and Cheese product.

But if consumers are looking for healthier foods—and if organic options aren’t always available or affordable—”natural” starts to look pretty appealing. And it’s the brands’ use of the term that leads the customers to believe that a can of soup or bag of chips is the second-best thing to organic. “All natural”, “just like nature intended”, “pure and natural” – declarations like those go further than just observing that the ingredients are all sourced from planet earth—they imply a wholesomeness, a minimalist approach to processed foods, that in reality, are reliant on genetically modified and artificial ingredients as well as chemical processes.

Consumers would love to see regulations on the term “natural” but FDA won’t touch it, because it would be virtually impossible to define, like Carlin observed. How do you define something that’s applicable to everything?

What we can hope for, though,  is more brands beginning to ditch the term altogether. And if the government won’t regulate what natural is, perhaps they will clarify what it isn’t. Artificial colors, artificial flavors, GMOs, refined flours and sugars, trans fats, isolates, would be good places to start.

And it’s not just “natural” anymore, either. Chobani yogurt, which includes milk from cows who ate GMO grains, uses “real” as a “natural” alternative. “Pure”, “simple”, “authentic”—they’re all vying for our predisposition towards wholesome foods—an oxymoron when discussing processed, packaged food. The lawsuits are likely to start rolling in soon enough over those words, too.

So we have to ask ourselves what “natural” means to us. Since no regulations exist, we’ve got to become a governing agency over our own bodies. Over our grocery carts. Yes, it means more work. It means reading labels. Using smart phones to look up ingredients and brands. We really don’t have excuses anymore if we want to eat a clean diet. If we want it to be natural, it’s up to us to be the judge and jury. And we all have the ability to do it. It’s a natural skill called survival.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Related on Organic Authority

No More ‘Natural Food’: Brands Trick Out Labels to Avoid Lawsuits

‘Genetically Modified Foods are Natural’: Nation’s Largest Food Manufacturers Petition FDA

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