Effective immediately, General Mills can no longer label its products that contain synthetic ingredients as “natural.”
The international food production corporation recently reached a settlement agreement with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) that would prevent it from designating its 30 Nature Valley products — which include granola bars, crispy squares, and trail mix bars — as “100% natural.”
In 2005, CSPI approached General Mills about what the group considered to be the food productions company’s reckless labeling of its products. While General Mills started phasing out its use of high-fructose corn syrup, high-maltose corn syrup, dextrose, and monohydrate, it didn’t cease use of all artificially produced products. That’s why CSPI brought on its lawsuit against the company in 2012, focusing on its use of high-maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin, refined substances not found in nature.
CSPI’s litigation director Steve Gardner said he considers the settlement agreement a victory for consumers striving to maintain healthy lives, pointing out that it takes regulation of food marketing and advertising a step further than the Food and Drug Administration has expressed a willingness to go.
“No acceptable official definition of ‘natural’ should allow the claim on highly processed ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin, substances that literally do not occur in nature,” Gardner said in a press release. “But as long as there is no definition, companies will still recklessly make the claim, and consumers will continue to be deceived.”
The mislabeling of food as “natural” is not specific to General Mills. As a matter of fact, it has become common practice in food production. In a study released earlier this year, University of Houston researchers found that food companies often create a “false sense of health” by using buzzwords to market their products — including “gluten-free,” “organic,” “whole grain,” and antioxidant.” While their products posed no additional health benefits, people often believed that they would be of nutritional benefit, according to a survey the researchers conducted.
Fast food companies have used similar tactics. Subway has risen in popularity among health-conscious millennials in recent years due in part to the use of its green packaging and “Think Fresh” tagline. Many of the food chain’s offerings also have a “Heart Check Approval” label from the American Heart Association, despite an average calorie count that surpasses 600. McDonald’s attempted to follow suit last year by adding “healthy” chicken wraps to its menu, as outlined in a leaked internal memo.
While the FDA has defined “natural” as foods that don’t contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic colors, the agency hasn’t enforced it to the liking of public health advocates and lawmakers. Last year, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) introduced legislation that would call on the FDA to clarify its definition of natural and prohibit the use of the word on products that have synthetic ingredients or ingredients that have undergone chemical changes.
“Childhood obesity has nearly tripled in the past 30 years and is a huge public health problem in this country that puts millions of American children at risk,” Pallone said in a press release. “Healthy eating is critical to combating this epidemic. That is why it is so important that when families make the effort to eat nutritious, healthy food, the labels on food products help them make the right choices—not confuse or mislead them.”
Fortunately for Pallone and other supporters of stricter food labeling regulations, a wave of change may be on the horizon, especially as some companies buckle under pressure. CSPI’s most recent settlement, for example, follows successful attempts to remove the “natural” label from 7Up, Capri Sun, Crystal Light, Edy’s, Dreyer’s ice cream and Izze soft drinks.