A box of Nature Valley Oats ’n Honey granola bars declares that the popular snack is “made with 100 percent natural whole grain oats.” It used to say “100 percent natural.”
Kix cereal once boasted of being made from “all natural corn,” but no more. General Mills edited both labels after the company was accused in a lawsuit of misleading consumers.
The aura that foodmakers hope to convey with the word “natural” is under attack, and Minnesota’s giant food producers have gotten tangled in legal disputes. Cargill is in the midst of at least two lawsuits over natural claims, while General Mills has faced five.
Across the food industry, “natural” has long been one of the most popular labels because it evokes an image of good health. But there are no clear standards for what qualifies, and some argue that the word is so vague that it’s meaningless.
“We can’t define it,” said Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist and policy analyst for Consumer Reports. “The problem is that it is so subjective. We would just like it to go away.”
The ingredients that go into many items have heightened the debate. Products containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients, such as Kix and Nature Valley bars, have come under particularly fierce attack.
“A lot of lawyers see it as a good field to get into, and one ripe with a lot of misleading claims,” said John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “The next time a company thinks about slapping a natural label on [a product], their corporate counsel may say, ‘Hey don’t do that.’ ”
Foodmakers continue to put the natural label on new products. More than 20 percent of grocery items launched last year claimed to be “natural” in some way, according to Datamonitor, a market research firm.
Though the use of the natural label has declined slightly in recent years, foodmakers deny that the claim is vague or misleading.
“We stand behind our labels and our products,” General Mills said in a statement. The Golden Valley-based company declined to comment further, saying it normally doesn’t talk about matters under litigation.
Louis Finkel, head of federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group, said foodmakers use natural to accurately represent the products they are selling.
The food companies like the label for its connotation of healthiness, which can command premium prices. According to market researcher Mintel, 62 percent of U.S. adults say that when they see products labeled “all natural,” they think they’re healthy.
But Mintel also found that despite the natural label’s healthy halo, only 33 percent felt they could trust it. And “natural” is often confused with “organic.”
“Consumers are unbelievably confused by natural claims and many attribute the same qualities to natural products that are fully provided by organic foods, ” said Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It, a group pushing for food containing GM ingredients to be labeled as such.
“Organic” has a detailed definition under federal food regulations. Foods labeled “organic” can’t be produced with synthetic fertilizers and most pesticides, and can’t include GM crops.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no formal definition of “natural” food, though it considers “natural” on a label to be truthful only when nothing synthetic or artificial is added to a product — an artificial color, for instance. The FDA does not often cite companies for violations.
Consumer groups and corporations have increasingly been looking to the FDA for a better definition. As litigation has piled up, corporate defendants such as General Mills have asked federal judges to effectively defer labeling suits to the expertise of the FDA.
In January, the FDA weighed in on three cases, including a Kix suit. But in a letter to three judges, an FDA assistant commissioner said the agency would not define natural in the context of litigation. If the FDA were to formally define natural, the letter said, it would likely embark on a public rulemaking process.