Class action victory over misuse of ‘natural’ overlooks a glaring example

Posted by
May 15, 2014

woman buying groceries in supermarket.

BY BILL BONVIE

When consumers are being deliberately misled and the Food and Drug Administration fails to act, the filing of a class action is looking more and more like the best course of action.

The latest settlement of such litigation marked another significant victory for consumer advocates on the issue of deceptive label language used to hoodwink the public into believing a food product is healthier than it really is. In fact, a spate of lawsuits against food companies for misusing the term “natural” seems to have succeeded in spurring a number of other brands to remove such references from their packaging.

But, as Food Identity Theft discovered, even class action lawsuits can miss things that could well have an adverse effect on the health of consumers.

Such appears to be the case with the recent news that Kellogg’s had agreed to respective settlements of $5 million and $325,000 over the inaccurate use of terms such as “all natural” and “nothing artificial” on various products in its Kashi and Bear Naked lines. The company also agreed to change either the formulas or labels involved by the end of the year.

It’s not the first such case to be settled by the food industry rather than decided by a court. Last year, as we reported here, the soft-drink giant Pepsico agreed to a $9 million settlement of a lawsuit that challenged the use of the word “natural” in its Naked Juices, which contain artificial ingredients.  (A similar suit has also filed against Cargill for calling its Truvia sweetener “natural” when its main ingredient, erythritol, is chemically processed.)

In the case of Kashi, what was described as “all natural” included such additives as pyridoxine hydrochloride, calcium pantothenate, hexane-processed soy ingredients, ascorbic acid, glycerin and sodium phosphate.   Bear Naked is alleged to have falsely advertised certain food products by labeling those products “100% Natural” or “100% Pure & Natural” when they contained hexane-processed soy ingredients, according to a website on the suit, which also noted that the company denies it did anything wrong, and asserts its labels were “truthful and consistent with the law.”

But on a recent trip to the supermarket, we discovered a Bear Naked product that wasn’t listed among the half-dozen named in the lawsuit – one also containing a soy-based additive that, according to a consumer “ambassador” for the company, isn’t processed with hexane, which is why it apparently won’t be included in the settlement.  But hexane-processed or not, it’s still a substance that many consumers would consider not only unnatural, but potentially harmful.

The product in question, Bear Naked 100% Natural Original Cinnamon Granola, comes complete with cutesy assurances that it is “bearly processed” and contains “no HFCS, artificial flavors, or hydrogenated oils and “no monkey business.” But one of the ingredients it does contain is the flavor enhancer soy protein isolate – a form of free glutamic acid that is a close relative of monosodium glutamate and one that can trigger adverse reactions in MSG-sensitive individuals.  It’s also categorized by some neuroscientists in a class of excitotoxins capable of killing brain cells by literally exciting them to death, particularly in children and the elderly

Misleading ‘natural’ terms fewer – but not gone

Now, one might think curtailing the inaccurate use of descriptive terms on food packages was the job of the FDA. But the agency has consistently declined to provide a definition of “natural” (even as recently as last January), allowing its use on food products as long as they contain no added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances, and taking no apparent action to enforce even those provisions.

Such lack of control encouraged many food companies to use the term “natural” with competitive abandon – that is, until consumer watchdogs started taking them to court over such misleading label language.  That’s not to say that some manufacturers haven’t continued to describe their products as “natural” – and that some might not even be justified in doing so.  But others still use it in ways that seem designed to deceive, such as:

Minute Maid Premium fruit drinks. On the front of the cartons for this line of refrigerated beverages, which include Lemonade, Tropical Punch and Fruit Punch, the words “100% Natural” is prominently displayed, with the word “flavors” in smaller letters underneath. Perhaps the lawyers for this Coca-Cola subsidiary think that adequately limits the application of the phrase to flavors, although one could easily make the assumption that it describes the entire product. In any case, the second ingredient in all these drinks is the very unnatural laboratory sweetener high fructose corn syrup.

New Grain Berry Pancake & Waffle Mix. Again, the manufacturer might claim that “Natural Berries of Grain” simply describes the berries, not other ingredients.  But that claim, along with “antioxidants to support heart health and total health” could well give a hurried shopper the impression that this is a totally “natural” and “healthy” product, when, in fact, one of the ingredients contains aluminum, the toxic metal that was directly linked to Alzeheimer’s  in an early-onset case of that disease.

Herr’s All Natural Good Natured Baked Multigrain Crisps. Among the ingredients in this product is one that might seem OK – caramel color – unless you know that caramel color is considered an artificial coloring that contain a potentially carcinogenic chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI), according to ConsumerReports.org.

Yes, thanks to those class-actions suits, there are far fewer misleading uses of “natural” terminology on food packages.  But that doesn’t mean we can afford to let down our guard.