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

| Tuesday July 31st, 2012 | 6 Comments

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.


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  • Debslbnc

    Basically, you can’t believe anything with regard to marketing and packaging labels.  Even the certified organic label doesn’t always mean the product is 100% organic.  Buy fresh produce from local farms.  Try to buy meat from local farms, as well.  Shop the perimeter of stores – not the center aisles.  That will help to eliminate much of the toxic chemical additives our food is processed with.  Sadly, we are losing our access to healthy, clean food.

  • Nature boy

    Isnt there a definition of “processed food”?

    Also, as much as things like corn syrup get flack right now, the real problem is not corn syrup (which is the same thing as sugar no matter how much people rant about it). The real problem is the sheer quantity of sugar/syrup in things. There is even corn syrup in bread these days! It’s nuts and a much bigger problem than the nuances of “natural” IMHO.

  • Oren J.

    The 7up soda can now says 100% NATURAL too!  Such false advertising!  Frustrating that I have to now read the labels on almost everything I buy.  Kashi Cereals are now made with GMO ingredients as well.  I guess I will just have to grow my own food :)

  • Dave Shires

    To echo nature boy, there’s nothing un-natural about corn syrup.   Maltodextrin is basically just starch.   Of course both of them are heavily processed and there’s definitely waaaaaaay too much corn syrup in these and other products. So does the heavy processing make it “un-natural” .. maybe…    But as far as this lawsuit goes, I have a feeling some law firm is smelling cash.

    That said, I sympathize with the reasoning and as annoying as it may sound, someone probably does have to lay down a more clear legal definition of all of these terms.

  • Rodney North

    Regardless of the whether HFCS & Dextrin are ‘natural’ – either legally or in terms of common sense – the juxtaposition of those ingredients against the ‘natural’ marketing and messaging of this product is a problem for General Mills, at least if they want to be seen as a responsible, ethical enterprise.

    What to do? They could either alter their recipes (our company, for ex, doesn’t use those ingredients in our own line of cereal bars* ) OR they could alter their packaging, advertising, etc. to lower the emphasis on ‘natural’ OR a mix of both.
    Just an idea.

    * see http://tinyurl.com/ctrstmu

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/DD5FFSYMMWWDBJV6GDZHC5I7C4 Sakinabai

    Hello, providing the perspective of management consulting and an end consumer who needs to avoid aritificial ingredients and preservatives for health reasons; I get hives. I would like to believe that companies have not fully evolved to understand the individual health risk to end consumers. I tend to read the ingredients list even if the label says all natural; case in point the Nature Valley issue. Technically, isn’t maltodextrin a derivative of a natural product, hfcs as well? (forgive my lack of knowledge please! and now that I try to avoid both for reason listed above.)? Rather than forcing litigation,why can’t the consumer take personal responsibility to avoid the product? Or personally solicit the company to modify the product to meet a growing consumer base. A bit of self-cannibalization (Clayton Christensen, HBS, Innosight.com) to service existing consumers and to re-engineer the product for future generations.