Earlier today, I posted my monthly organic and natural food coupon roundup. A few months ago, I started adding the following reminder to the end of each coupon post:


Please remember that products labeled natural are very loosely regulated. Some of them may contain genetically modified ingredients (GMO).

When you see a food labeled as “natural” or it has the word “nature” in its name, there is no way to know if it meets your individual standards of “natural.” Products that call themselves natural can have genetically modified ingredients in them, contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or ingredients you’ve never heard of.


The FDA’s website has this to say about the meaning of “natural” on the label of a food.


From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

Natural is a front-of-package marketing term; it’s not a certification or even a promise of anything. It’s a term used to lure consumers who are concerned about the ingredients in their foods, but it seems that consumers who are lured in by the term aren’t educated about what it means. A recent string of lawsuits and complaints brought against companies that use the word natural on their packaging show that when consumers realize that the term is largely unregulated, they believe they’ve been tricked.


The most recent lawsuit has been brought against General Mills for its Nature Valley products. According to the New York Times, two California mothers want all the profits that General Mills has made from these products because they were deceived into feeding their families Nature Valley products that they though were “natural when they contain highly processed ingredients.”


The highly processed ingredients are “the sweeteners high fructose corn syrup and high maltose corn syrup, and maltodextrin, a thickener than can also impart a slight sweetness to food.”


These are all processed ingredients. Most people would not consider them natural, but based on the FDA’s loose standards for natural labeling, it’s hard to argue that they can’t be labeled natural. But the two California moms are making that argument, and I’m torn about their lawsuit.


I believe consumers have the responsibility to understand what it is they are buying — especially when it comes to the food they buy. I think that when people are trying to decide if a product meets their personal standards they should turn the package to the back and read the nutrition information and the ingredients, not rely on the front of the package marketing words.


Smartphone apps like Don’t Eat That and Fooducate can help simplify the process of understanding what some of the unfamiliar ingredients are. For those without smartphones, guides to food labels and ingredients like “Read it Before You Eat It” or  “An A to Z Guide of Food Additives” can be helpful.


When I hear about lawsuits like the one against Nature Valley, my first thought is, “These people are suing the company because they were too lazy to turn the package over and see that there is high fructose corn syrup in it and now they want a whole bunch of money because of it?”


But Amy McKendrick, one of the mothers who has brought the lawsuit against General Mills, said one of the reasons for the lawsuit is to “make other parents aware that products they were buying to avoid dyes and processed ingredients for health reasons may not be as pure as they thought based on what they read on packaging.”


I get that. People do need to be aware. The FDA isn’t changing its rules about labeling foods “natural.” For years now, the agency has been attempting to go after deceptive front-of-package labeling, but companies are still putting confusing claims on the front of packages. It’s marketing, and selling products is what food companies are in business to do. It’s not hard to understand why food packages have words like “natural” on them. Consumers like to see those words and they sell products.


We can’t rely on the manufacturers to stop the deceptive or confusing labeling. The FDA isn’t doing much about it. Consumers aren’t as educated as they should be. As long as these conditions stay the same, we’ll be seeing more lawsuits like the one against Nature Valley, or the recent ones against makers of Nutella. But, unless the outcomes of these lawsuits change how companies are allowed to use marketing terms and not just hand out cash settlements, I’m not sure how effective they are going to be.


In the case of Nutella, the company “agreed to change the Nutella label and some marketing statements about the product, as well as create new television ads and modify the brand's website.” We’ll have to wait and see the outcome of the Nature Valley lawsuit.


What do you think about lawsuits like the one against General Mills or Nutella? Do you think they are effective tools that will create change in labeling?


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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

General Mills sued for using the term 'natural'
Two moms are suing General Mills over the use of the term 'natural' to market its Nature Valley products. Do lawsuits like this create any change?