Thanks to an increasing awareness of where food comes from and its impact on our health, shoppers are becoming more discriminating, especially when it comes to processed foods. In response, many product manufacturers, fearful of losing customers, are slapping the “natural” label on foods that are anything but.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has pretty much punted on the matter, but acknowledges the challenge. “It is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth,” the agency says. Instead, the agency only tells us what it does not consider natural—added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.
This leaves plenty of leeway for manufacturers to fool consumers.
A recent report from the Cornucopia Institute called “Cereal Crimes” shows how some cereal companies are deceiving shoppers by not disclosing the use of pesticides, genetically modified organisms, toxic solvents, and other potentially dangerous inputs in their “natural” brands.
Consumer confusion on "natural"
Various polls show that consumers mistakenly believe that “natural” means the product to be free of GMOs and pesticides, practices that of course organic manufacturers are barred from using.
The Cornucopia report argues that such deceptive practices undercut organic brands because the natural products cost less. However, some natural brands are actually priced higher than their organic counterparts (one 35 percent more), gouging customers by taking advantage of their interest in healthy foods.
Cornucopia says that cereal marketers benefit from a widespread confusion between “organic” and “natural” and concludes, “Companies marketing ‘natural’ products merely pay lip service to sustainability and eco-friendliness, while undercutting truly committed organic companies.” No surprise that it’s the larger companies undercutting the smaller ones. (Examples of food giants named in the report are Kellogg, Kraft, and PepsiCo.)
Sadly, probably because of higher costs, some organic brands have even downshifted and instead use the meaningless natural label. Cornucopia decries such companies for capitalizing on their organic reputations while benefiting from cheaper ingredients.
But the food industry may not be able to keep this up much longer.
Lawsuits to the rescue
When the federal government fails to act to protect the public, we often see private lawyers filling in the gap. Such is the case with a spate of recent lawsuits claiming that food companies are deceiving customers over “natural” products that really aren’t. Examples include Kashi (a division of Kellogg), sued for using “unnaturally processed and synthetic ingredients” in its GoLean brand; Arizona brand iced tea for using high fructose corn syrup; and ConAgra, over the GMO content in its Wesson line of cooking oils.
The ConAgra case is especially intriguing for its potential impact. According to the Center for Food Safety, 70 percent of processed foods contain GMO ingredients. Up to 85 percent of corn grown in the US is genetically engineered, as are 91 percent of soybeans, both extremely common ingredients in processed foods.
In December 2011, a lawsuit was filed against snack giant Frito-Lay, also over GMO-containing ingredients. This case could really rock the salty snacks world. The company says their natural products “do not contain any artificial flavors or artificial preservatives” but makes no claim about GMOs. As corn and soy are two of the most common ingredients in Frito-Lay products, the snack giant cannot possibly be sourcing GMO-free ingredients while maintaining their cheap prices.
Stop the 'natural' deception
All three sectors—industry, government, and consumers—need to act. Shoppers should realize that anything appearing on the front of a package is marketing hype (unless, of course, it’s the USDA organic seal).
And while it might be nice to have FDA give industry more clear guidance on what is and is not allowed under the natural moniker, this could also backfire. We don’t want FDA, for example, to make any more industry-friendly statements on such issues as high fructose corn syrup and GMOs.
What can industry do? Stop using meaningless terms such as "natural." With a rising movement toward real food (the kind grown on farms, not made in factories), processed food companies will face increasing challenges. But if they keep responding with more deception, the lawsuits will likely keep coming.
Michele Simon, JD, MPH, is president of Eat Drink Politics (eatdrinkpolitics.com) and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back (Nation Books, 2006). Follow her on Twitter @Appetite4Profit.