First ConAgra, now Kashi: 'natural' claims called into question

Kashi's next in line to face a class-action lawsuit for its misuse of the "all natural" label. Will these lawsuits lead to a better definition of "natural?"

Yesterday, NewHope360 reported on the class-action lawsuit facing ConAgra Foods for using "100% natural" claims on its genetically-modified Wesson cooking oils. Today, The Kellogg Company, and Kashi—its subsidiary—is under fire for also misleading consumers with the "natural" label.

The class action lawsuit was filed in a southern California district court by plaintiff Michael Bates of Texas. The complaint states that since 1999, Kashi knowingly has "prominently displayed the promises 'all natural' and/or 'nothing artificial' on the front labels of almost all of its products, cultivating a healthy and socially conscious image in an effort to promote the sale of these products."

Kashi is well-known for touting its "Real Food Values" and "7 Whole Grains on a Mission" slogans. The lawsuit claims that unnaturally processed and synthetic ingredients are found in many of its "all natural" products, including bars, cereals, shakes, cookies, crackers, pita crisps, waffles and pizza.

One product, Kashi's "All Natural" GoLean Shakes, is composed almost entirely of synthetic and unnaturally processed ingredients, reads the complaint. On its website, the Kashi Ingredient Decoder displays which ingredients the company avoids and which it uses in its products. But the decoder does not list the following synthetic ingredients found in the shake: sodium molybdate, phytonadione, sodium selenite, magnesium phosphate, niacinamide, calcium carbonate, calcium phosphate, calcium pantothenate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, thiamin hydrochloride and potassium iodide.

Will lawsuits lead to a better definition of 'natural?'

For now, the "natural" label is an issue that government agencies seem to be leaving up to consumers. And as consumers become savvier about what's in their food supply, expect to see more emotionally-charged lawsuits on big food companies.

"There's such a movement around reconnecting with food that, as our food literacy improves, we're realizing that these claims like natural have no legal definition," said Robyn O'Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth. Indeed,  the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet adopted a rule for its policy on labeling foods "natural," nor does it require pre-market label approval.

"FDA's approach is to say at the very least you shouldn't have anything artificial or synthetic in or added to the food that you wouldn't ordinarily expect to be there," said Jason Sapsin, lead attorney for Polsinelli Shughart's FDA practice.

The Federal Trade Commission acknowledges that "natural" is a term consumers understand and consistently look for, but that it's extremely difficult to craft an appropriate definition, said Sapsin. "It makes sense to let consumers and plaintiffs fight it out with business in litigation," he said. FDA has enough hot button issues right now, such as NDIs, that creating a binding rule defining natural—in coordination with FTC and the Department of Agriculture—would be a tall task.

The question on everyone's mind now is, "who's next?" Manufacturers of "natural" products should reevaluate their use of the term to ensure it meets FDA's current guidelines. "Industry has been too fast and too loose with using this term," said Sapsin. "It has been deploying it as a means of gaining marketing advantage without considering how seriously consumers take this. I think there will be more lawsuits and there should be more, until those lawsuits begin to set parameters."

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