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Two Mothers Fight General Mills Over “Natural” Snack Foods

What is "natural"? Food marketers' slippery use of this word is the subject of a legal case in California.

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Photo: libertygrace0 (Flickr)

General Mill’s Nature Valley products are labeled as “100% Natural”, a claim for which the Food and Drug Administration has no official definition.

Citing false advertising and unfair competition, two California women are suing General Mills over “100% Natural” claims made on Nature Valley packaging. The focus of the lawsuit is on three additives found in the products — high fructose corn syrup, high maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin.

“Natural” Confusion

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides no official definition for the word “natural” when used on food packaging. However, according to the FDA website, “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”

Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and sociology at New York University, calls this a non-definition and urges, “It’s time for the FDA to step in and give the food industry — and the public — some guidance about what counts as ‘natural’ and what does not.”

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) already formally defines “naturally raised” and “natural” for meat and poultry products, Nestle points out.

Consumers Demand Clarity

Intentionally or not, food companies are profiting from this confusion. In the United States, foods labeled “natural” garnered $22.8 billion in sales during 2009, a four percent growth from the previous year according to a Nielsen study.

But the General Mills suit is evidence that health food consumers are ready and willing to take action over unmet expectations.

Earlier this year, a man from New York legally expressed his discontent with Frito-Lay. The complainant argued that he would have not paid a premium for “all-natural” Tostitos and SunChips if he had known that the products contained ingredients from genetically-modified crops.

Similarly, Kashi was forced to respond to consumer pressure over cereals containing genetically-modified and non-organic ingredients.

Spread The Word

One of the plaintiffs in the Nature Valley suit, Amy McKendrick, says that she wants to highlight this label issue for other parents. “I’ve figured out now that something can say it’s 100 percent natural on the outside and not be 100 percent natural,” McKendrick told The New York Times. “I want to make sure other people making purchases understand that, too.”

Read More:

  •  Lawsuit Forces General Mills To Defend The Accuracy Of Its ‘Natural’ Labeling (New York Times)
  • Food Politics Semantics: The Meaning Of “Natural” (Food Politics)
Amanda Solliday

Amanda Solliday is a reporter for WFIU/WTIU News and a news anchor on WFIU’s Morning Edition. She has won awards for radio news reporting from Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRDNI) and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). You can follow her on Twitter @AjSolliday

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