Last November California Prop 37, which would have required labeling for all food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMO), was narrowly defeated. One of the opponent’s arguments was the potential lawsuits such legislation would bring. Even though Prop 37 failed, the lawsuits have begun. These lawsuits are accusing companies of intentionally mislabeling packaged foods to make them seem healthier than they actually are, often by using the word “natural”.
Studies show that consumers frequently give more credit to the term “natural” than “organic” when it comes to important nutrition and health attributes of a product. This is amazing, since the only term that is regulated is “organic”. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declined to define the term “natural”, causing many lawsuits from the East to West coast. “The labeling on packaged food is just a sea of lies,” says Pierce Gore, a consumer affairs attorney in San Jose, California. He says, “It’s difficult to describe the breadth of the problem. American consumers are being systematically lied to about the foods they eat.”
Gore has filed suits against 32 companies selling mislabeled foods, including six of the 20 biggest food companies in the world: Kraft, Nestle, Frito-Lay, Hershey’s, Dole and ConAgra. In California it is illegal to distribute, sell or even possess misbranded food.
What are some of these “natural lies”? In 2009 the FDA published a Guidance for Industry, advising industries that “sweeteners derived from sugar cane syrup should not be listed in the ingredient declaration by names which suggest that the ingredients are juice, such as ‘evaporated cane juice’…because they fail to reveal the basic nature of the food and its characterizing properties (i.e., that the ingredients are sugars or syrups) as required by 21 CFR 102.5.” Some examples of this mislabeling are: Horizon Organic flavored milk products, Trader Joe’s for several of their branded packaged foods, and Chobani for their flavored yogurts.
A recent lawsuit in California involves the “all-natural” claim on the label of Mission tortilla chips. These chips contain GMO corn. The District Court Judge, Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, is recommending the FDA to decide if GMO products can be labeled as “all-natural”. In fact she has stayed the action for six months to give the government time to decide whether genetically engineered foods can be labeled “natural”. Unfortunately, experts do not expect the FDA to make a ruling any time soon.
A few other lawsuits concerning the “natural” labeling include ingredients such as hydrogenated oils in Ben & Jerry’s “All Natural” ice cream. Ben & Jerry’s settled their lawsuits for $7.5 million providing customers who bought flavors like “Chubby Hubby” and “Chunky Monkey” cash rebates of up to $20. They also changed their packaging. Tropicana “natural” orange juice is under suit for its labeling because according to the lawsuit, “it is heavily processed” due to the added chemically engineered “flavor packs”, which makes it taste the same year-round.
There are many more lawsuits, class-action lawsuits, etc. than mentioned and I’m sure more are being filed as I write this article. The Grocery Manufacturers Association believes that “part of the problem, and lawyers agree, is that consumers are looking for healthier products, and companies have responded by creating and branding their products as “all natural”. I believe it is time for the FDA to take up this tough issue and give a clear definition of the word “natural” on food products. What do you think?
So as we await the FDA’s action to define “natural” my suggestion would be to read the ingredient label and not the front of the package. Look for words like: partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils, added color, chemical preservatives called tocopherols, and artificial flavors. Also, remember that the term “organic” is regulated by the FDA, whereas “natural” means whatever the food manufacturer wants you to believe. Eat in good health.