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

naked juice

What were once highly motivating selling points on healthy foods, terms like “natural food,” “100% natural,” and “all natural,” have lost much of their luster in recent years. The claims, which have no federally regulated meaning, have cost food manufacturers millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements, and have now led many manufacturers to begin ditching the terms altogether. That “natural food” you’ve been buying… Well, turns out, it’s just plain old processed food with a clever marketing twist.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, companies including Pepsi, Campbell’s and Pepperidge Farms will drop the term “natural” from products that have resulted in costly lawsuits. Even natural food industry mainstay brand Barbara’s is dropping “natural” from its popular Puffins line of cereals after a 2011 investigation found genetically modified ingredients in cereal samples.

A national focus on natural food is nothing short of a good thing, particularly at a time when obesity rates and diet-related illnesses are at an all-time high. But there’s a problem: the claim “natural” is essentially meaningless. It’s why so many consumers have successfully sued large food manufacturers including Pepsi, FritoLay, ConAgra, Ben & Jerry’s, Kellogg, and Campbell’s.

According to the Wall Street Journal, at least 100 lawsuits have been filed since 2011 over the misuse of “natural.” The brands using the term have produced foods with artificial colors and flavors, and highly controversial genetically modified ingredients, which the World Health Organization defines as a process that “does not occur naturally.”

Even the FDA, which doesn’t regulate the term “natural,” has a “long-standing policy” considering foods bearing the claim to be free from artificial or synthetic ingredients. But the agency’s laissez-faire approach to the term could change if a bill introduced to Congress in September passes. The “food label modernization” bill would force the FDA to standardize the nation’s nutrition labeling system, including guidelines on the term “natural.” While it wouldn’t guarantee use of “natural” as an indicator of a healthy food, it would at least bring clarity to what the food product could not contain. And for outraged shoppers tired of finding GMOs and artificial colors in foods purported to be all-natural, that’s a meaningful upgrade.

In the meantime though, rather than face the threat of more litigation or the expense of product reformulation, companies are simply opting to remove “natural” from labels. Pepsi’s Naked Juice settled a suit over the summer for $9 million and agreed to remove “natural” from its product packaging and marketing materials. The company’s Frito-Lay division also removed the term from products that were part of a reformulation overhaul in 2011. While some artificial ingredients were replaced, GMOs and controversial additives remained, leading to more lawsuits and a decision by the company to pull “natural” from the packaging.

Subtle or not, erasing the other “N” word could put a dent in the $40 billion that foods marketed as natural pulled in in 2012. It’s the second-highest grossing food label claim behind “low fat,” reports Neilsen. And, reports the Wall Street Journal, a survey conducted last year by the research firm Mintel “found 51% of Americans seek out ‘all natural” when food shopping.”

But 2013 saw significant decreases in manufacturers using “natural” on food products. “Only 22.1% of food products and 34% of beverage products launched in the U.S. during the first half of 2013 claimed to be ‘natural,’ down from 30.4% and 45.5%, respectively, in 2009 according to Datamonitor.” And while many Americans still want authentically natural products, Datamonitor reports, “only 47% view the claims as trustworthy.” After all, like George Carlin once said, everything is natural. The term means “of nature” and what on this planet does not originate from this planet? (It’s easy to see why regulators have such a difficult time defining the term.)

But these companies aren’t abandoning their efforts to lure the naturally minded consumer; brands are just beginning to use other natural sounding—but just as vague—terms. Chobani yogurt, which still uses “natural” despite consumer backlash and lawsuits, also favors “real”, “authentic” and “preservative-free” on its products and website. Barbara’s Puffins will replace “natural” with “simple,” “wholesome,” “nutritious” and “minimally processed.” Ben & Jerry’s replaced “natural” with “Vermont’s finest.” These terms, and others that feign naturalness, will continue to pop-up on “natural” offenders as brands do their best to keep up with a market demand for minimally processed foods.

With the same vigor that’s created a thriving marketplace for “natural,” “wholesome” or “authentic” claims are likely to appeal to the healthy food shopper, making discernment even more elusive. And further into the rabbit hole we go…

Once (or if) “natural” becomes regulated like “organic” or the recent “gluten-free” (which took the FDA nine years to define), will consumers begin to take umbrage with terms like “authentic” or “wholesome?” What constitutes the use of vague adjectives on a food product, anyway?

How about this: regulations that limit what food manufacturers can say to strictly the facts. In other words, adjectives would only be allowed if they’re verifiable. Instead of “wholesome” snacks, the manufacturer could call the product “round,” “crispy”, “beige” or “made in a factory?” Ice cream isn’t “authentic” or “pure,” but “cold,” “creamy” or “from the mammary glands of impregnated cows.” (If it’s actually made from milk, that is.)

The only way labels are going to truly reflect what’s actually in the products is not by regulating descriptive word after word; it’s by regulating the industry into total transparency and truth in labeling… with no exceptions, naturally.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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