A class action lawsuit against PepsiCo's Frito-Lay snacks business in late December rounded out last year's bevy of "all natural" claims lawsuits. According to the California-based claimant, the company is misleading consumers by using the "made with all-natural ingredients" label on Tostitos and SunChips snacks, which actually contain genetically modified vegetable oils and corn.
Frito-Lay joins the ranks of food manufacturers such as ConAgra, Kashi, Bear Naked and Alexia Foods, who were sued last year for similar complaints. As each lawsuit unfolded, and as genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling initiatives gained steam, a new trend arose. It's becoming increasingly clear that many consumers believe the "all natural" or "100% natural" marketing claims should equate to non-GMO.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has loosely defined "natural" as containing "nothing artificial or synthetic" that would not normally be expected to be in the food. But the GMO complaint is a new one for natural, and one that just 10 years ago wasn't on the radar—for consumers or the government.
"Historically, 'natural' has not meant non-GMO," said Mary Mulry, Ph.D., president of FoodWise, Inc. a natural, organic and specialty foods consultancy. "I think that has shifted over the past few years as people have become more aware of GMOs."
'Natural' needs tiers, similar to organic
The reality is, the food supply isn't as "natural" as consumers think it is. For example, take modified food starch. "Some retailers will say it's natural, but it is not a natural product—it's chemically modified," said Mulry. Also, the lack of availability of non-GMO ingredients, such as soy protein concentrate commonly found in vegetarian foods, is holding back many natural foods from being non-GMO. Should these foods be excluded from the "natural" label, too?
"Given where we are today, there should be two tiers of natural," said Mulry, akin to organic certification levels. For example, she said "natural" could mean no artificial or synthetic ingredients or colors while "100% natural" could mean the former plus non-GMO.
Mulry has long wanted a coalition of industry professionals to take on the "natural" definition, similar to what Just Label It is doing for non-GMO labeling. "We shouldn't denigrate natural," she said. "It should mean something different than 'natural' Frito-Lay chips."
If industry doesn't come up with a clear definition, she predicts companies may discontinue the use of the label "natural" or "100% natural." After all, lawsuits can't occur if the claims aren't made. Several of Mulry's clients have, in fact, already removed the "natural" label from their products.
As Nutrition Business Journal reported last year, "Whether or not these particular [lawsuits] have merit, the lack of definition around 'natural' continues to permit deceptive marketing claims on grocery store shelves that diminish the message and import of the overall category."
For now, retailers such as Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocers and Whole Foods Market are left to decide their own natural credos. But with lawsuits mounting, consumers may soon be deciding the definition of "natural" for us all.
Do you think "natural" should be defined as non-GMO? Tell us in the comments.