How Should a Responsible Company Use the “Natural” Label?

What does “natural” mean? The nature of this notoriously vague label is once again reaching the courts, this time in a lawsuit filed by two Californian women against General Mills. The plaintiffs claim, according to the New York Times, that General Mills has deceptively marketed its Nature Valley products as natural when they contain highly processed ingredients, and therefore the company is liable for false advertising and anticompetitiveness.

This case is the latest in a number of lawsuits that have been filed lately against General Mills, accusing the company of using deceptive advertising for its products. In addition to the legal questions, this series of lawsuits brings other questions to mind – for example, does the label under debate violate the company’s commitment to ethics and integrity? And what does it mean for a company that prides itself on being responsible, or as its CEO puts it: “our approach to global responsibility is straightforward. It’s all about living our values – one of which is “We do the right thing, all the time.”?

This case is also important because it helps once again to bring to the public attention the debate around the “natural” label. Currently there are no legal requirements or restrictions for using the label “natural” on foods, and it can be a meaningless marketing term, but consumers nevertheless tend to value it. For some reason, as some surveys show, they even value it more than they value “organic” labels. Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that the “natural” label became so popular?

In the current lawsuit (which, according to Marc Gunther hasn’t even been filed yet), the plaintiffs explain they bought Nature Valley’s products because they believed they were all-natural and therefore healthier, only to find out later that “they contain non-natural, highly processed ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), high maltose corn syrup (HMCS), and maltodextrin and ricemaltodextrin (together, Maltodextrin).”

What gave them the impression that the products they bought were all-natural? The packages of the products, the plaintiffs explain. For example, “on the front and back of both Chewy Trail Mix Granola Bars’ boxes, the phrase “100% Natural” appears immediately beneath the Nature Valley logo. The back of the Chewy Trail Mix Dark Chocolate & Nut Granola Bars’ box states: “100% Natural. 100% Delicious.” Given this type of language, they were expecting to buy all-natural snacks, not ones that contain HFCS, HMCS, and Maltodextrin.

As mentioned, this is not the first lawsuit against General Mills with this sort of allegations. Last October, Annie Lam of California filed a lawsuit against General Mills, claiming it is incorrectly describing the ingredients of its fruit snacks, citing strawberry-flavored Fruit Roll-Ups that contain “pears from concentrate,” but no strawberries. Lam also said, according to Reuters, that the packaging “was likely to deceive consumers into believing the snacks are healthful and natural, rather than a combination of artificial, non-fruit ingredients.” In May U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti in San Francisco allowed Lam’s lawsuit to go forward, noting that reasonable consumers might be misled by packaging that claimed the snacks are “made with real fruit,” and would not read the fine print.

According to AdWeek, that was the second lawsuit General Mills has faced for its Fruit Snacks. On June 2011, a woman sued the company for $5 million for misleading consumers about the health and nutrition qualities of Fruit Roll-Ups. The case was voluntarily dismissed a month later by the plaintiff, who decided not to pursue the case.

Another consumer lawsuit against General Mills was filed by Minneapolis law firm Zimmerman Reed, accusing the company of violating the FDA’s standard of identity for yogurt and knowingly mislabeling its Yoplait Greek yogurt because it includes milk protein concentrate (MPC), which isn’t listed by the FDA as an ingredient acceptable for use in yogurt. The use of MPC makes Yoplait Greek yogurt “neither Greek yogurt, nor yogurt,” the suit claimed.

All of these examples are from the last year, but it seems like General Mills had to face these issues even before that. AdWeek, for example, reported that in  2009, the FDA forced the company to discontinue misleading cholesterol and cancer-prevention claims on its Cheerios packaging.

While we’ll leave the courts to decide what’s legal and what’s not, we can certainly see a pattern here of providing consumers with information on the products’ packaging that apparently makes it difficult for them to fully understand the exact nature of the product they’re buying. Of course consumers should do their research and carefully read the list of ingredients, but isn’t it also the responsibility of the company to provide information in a way that will minimize the chance for mistakes to a minimum?

This is even more important with vague terms like “natural” that are not backed up by clear standards and regulation, but are still valued by consumers. Currently every company comes up with its own definition for “natural,” which is I guess inevitable. Yet, companies like General Mills that pride themselves on being responsible should make sure their definition, no matter what it is, clear, understandable and visible on their products. Consumers, after all appreciate transparency and integrity no less than they appreciate products that are 100% natural.

[Image credit: S2Publicom, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, as welll as the sharing economy, open innovation and sustainable business models. Currently he is involved in projects focusing on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the relationship between sharing economy and resilience, design intelligence, and whether Millennials can integrate sustainability into their lifestyle.Raz is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.