“Natural” back in court again

Posted by
March 6, 2012

The ultra-popular buzz word “natural” is back in court again. Tropicana is the latest company that’s being taken to task for its loose use of the fashionable term, in this case for the claim that its “pure premium” brand juice is “100% pure and natural.”

The complaint, filed in California, states that “to extend shelf-life, Tropicana NFC (not from concentrate) juice undergoes extensive processing which includes the addition of aromas and flavors to its NFC juice. It is not natural orange juice. It is instead a product that is scientifically engineered in laboratories, not nature…”

Although that disclosure is not ‘hot-off-the-press news’ – and as I reported in December, these refrigerated juices are typically pasteurized, stripped of oxygen and dumped in million-gallon storage tanks where they sit for up to a year, and then revitalized with flavor packets containing secret ingredients –  it’s good  to hear about the lawsuit.

Okay, I know lawsuits are often the butt of jokes and negative comments in the court of public opinion. But cases such as this one, against some of the most powerful food companies around, are anything but “frivolous.” The filing of a lawsuit remains one of the most powerful and effective ways to try and make a company ‘clean up its act.’

While many of these food actions never get so far as to be ruled on by the courts, even the ones that don’t come to trial can bring forth some interesting information.

A complaint filed last October in California by the Center for Science in the Public Interest against General Mills and its Fruit Roll-ups and Fruit Gushers products stated that although the packaging  made the products appear to be nutritious, they were in fact “little better than candy.” General Mills, in its motion to dismiss the class-action lawsuit, claimed the “fruit” items (which contain trans-fats and artificial colors) were never represented  as being “healthful or nutritious,” and that the label “plainly disclose(s)” all those not-fruity ingredients (see how important it is to read the ingredient label). Think of how many of these products would sell if the packaging told it like it is: “Attention parents, these so-called ‘fruit’ products are NOT healthful or even nutritious.”

Other consumer legal actions challenging the “natural” claim include a recent case against Frito-Lay for deception in calling Tostitos and SunChips “all natural”; Kellogg’s-owned Kashi products; two class-action lawsuits against ConAgra for its Wesson cooking oil brand; and Snapple, for its use of HFCS in drinks labeled as “all natural.” Snapple removed all HFCS from its products in 2009.

Industry hides in the ‘grassroots’  to head off exposure via lawsuits  

As an interesting aside, while looking up several of these cases I kept getting returns for a group called “Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse,” or CALA, which apparently has chapters all over the country. Now at first look, this appears to be some type of grassroots citizens group who just can’t take these crazy lawsuits any longer. And a look at the California chapter website doesn’t dispel that image, with a Paypal donation button and a “homey” feel (although I was a little confused about the banner headline that states “California chooses bad lawsuits instead of good jobs.”)

But it doesn’t take too long to get the ‘dirt’ on CALA, revealing it to be little more than a “front group’ for industry. An article posted by Center for Justice & Democracy and Public Citizen titled “The CALA files: the secret campaign by Big Tobacco and other major industries to take away your rights,” notes that “(w)hile CALA chapters masquerade as grassroots citizens groups spontaneously manifesting citizen anger against so-called “lawsuit abuse” in their states, this report shows them to actually be part of a national corporate-backed network of front groups that receive substantial financial and strategic assistance from …some of America’s biggest corporations.”

The Corn Refiners Association and its ‘numbers game’

If you’ve watched television or read a magazine in the last five years, you’ve no doubt seen the “sugar is sugar” ads put forth by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA). The group also floods the airwaves with its mantra that consumers are “confused” by the name HFCS, inasmuch as the test-tube sweetener has about the “same amount of fructose as sugar,” and for that reason HFCS needs to have its name officially changed to the sweeter-sounding “corn sugar” title.

Now, all other issues surrounding HFCS  aside, it’s required by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to have a standard fructose content of either 42 or 55 percent.

But in the bizarro world of Big Corn and food labeling, there apparently are no rules. Consider this ingredient, Cornsweet 90®, a HFCS product made by agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) that contains not 42 percent, or 55 percent, but a whopping 90 percent fructose!

Upon learning about this particular sweetener, I placed a call to ADM and was told that yes, Cornsweet 90 is HFCS and could be labeled on food items as such. ADM says the products it’s most suited for would be low- and reduced-calorie foods and beverages and pharmaceuticals such as syrups. The ADM website calls Cornsweet 90 “ADM’s sweetest high fructose corn syrup.”

Is Cornsweet 90 added to foods in the U.S. under the ingredient name HFCS? Are we, in fact, gobbling up giant amounts of fructose in low-cal foods? I plan to find out. Stay tuned.