In recent months, I've been contacted by at least four different lawyers involved in different suits regarding the use of the word "natural" on food packages. I've been too busy with other matters and/or unable to make the claims asked of me to serve as an "expert" in these situation, so I thought I'd just ruin my chances of legally weighing in and bloviate a bit on the issue here.
From what I can gather, there is a large contingent of lawyers with eyes set on the food industry Some were involved in the Tobacco lawsuits and are looking for a new target. Others are food lawyers and public health advocates using the legal system to invoke the change they want. In other cases, food company A is suing food company B in an attempt to limit competition. Whatever the reasons, one lawyer told me something to the effect that: if you've got the word "natural" on your food product, there is good chance you're going to get sued.
Just to give a few examples of the current lawsuits:
- a consumer class action suit against Wesson Oil for using "natural" when it uses GM ingredients,
- cane and beet sugar growers suing corn growers and processors for calling high fructose corn syrup "natural",
- a suit involving a yogurt using the word "natural" to refer to it's sugars and added ingredients,
- a class-action suit against AriZona beverages and teas for using the word "natural",
- a suit against Frito-Lay for using the word "natural" in chips,
- An article in the WSJ a year or so ago mentioned a few of these and more.
The problem, as I see it, is that hardly anyone is purely right or wrong on this issue.
In my judgement, it probably is true that some food companies are using the word "natural" in ways that would fail to match up with most consumers' definition of the term. But, then, how do we know? There simply isn't much research on what consumers think the word "natural" means. And, when we look at how the term is used in the academic literature, it can take on definitions all the way from no growth hormones to produced without modern technologies to found in nature. That's all fine and good but almost no foods are produced without modern technologies nor are they found "in nature." Even raw fruits and veggies come from seeds that have have been carefully selected generation after generation (sometimes using modern technologies) to produce outcomes that were never found "in nature" - at least nature as of 10,000 years ago.
To add to the problem that "natural" is a nebulous phrase is the fact that our government regulatory agencies also define them in opaque and nebulous ways.
The USDA (which regulates meat) defines the word natural to mean:
A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as "no artificial ingredients; minimally processed").
Of course, that begs the question of what is an "artificial ingredient" or what it means to "fundamentally alter".
The FDA regulates the sales of all non-meat food. One FDA web site says the following about its definition of natural:
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.
Elsewhere, it appears that the FDA interprets natural to mean:
nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.
So, it seems the FDA is defining natural in terms of a consumer expectations. But, as I've indicated, there isn't much known about consumer expectations for specific foods regarding this term.
So, "yes" there are probably some food companies that are using the term "natural" in ways incommensurate with consumer beliefs. That's being a bit deceptive. But, it is also the case that, given the vagueness of USDA and FDA definitions, food companies often appear to be within legal bounds established by regulatory agencies. So, it is unclear that they are breaking the law.
One thing is probably true: adding the word "natural" to a food product probably does affect sales - otherwise companies wouldn't be doing it. But, as a consumer, how much "harm" is done by buying a product one thought (whatever is your definition) was "natural" but wasn't? To me, it is a bit like suing Reebok because my new shoes didn't actually make me run faster - even though their commercials show a lot of slim, fit, fast runners.
Natural doesn't have much meaning and it is probably silly to believe that we can ever establish a consistent and logical definition for it (either in the courts or with legislation). All manner of companies advertise and market with tangential claims and logos. Do I really believe I will "think different" if I buy an Apple or that I will "just do it" if I wear Nike or that I can "have it my way" if I eat at Burger King? As a consumer, that's how I see the word "natural" - as marketing or advertising claim - not as some certifiable process or food attribute that can be credibly established by science. My advice: buyer beware.