While “all natural” continues to be a huge marketing tool, a backlash appears to be forming against this largely unregulated descriptor.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that food manufacturers as diverse as PepsiCo and Campbell’s Soup are dropping the designation despite the $40bn in sales of foods marketed under the “natural” rubric. following a series of challenges.
It’s not surprising that food companies were bullish on the term initially, since controversy over the nature of just what is organic, instances of fraud and bait-and-switch with conventional foods, and the continued high prices for organic foods translated into consumer hostility. Studies like one in 2012 by Mintel found that shoppers will seek out “all natural,” preferring it to “organic.”
Unlike organic, no government regulations limit the use of the term “natural,” nor are there any guidelines for its use. That may all be changing: a “food label modernization bill” was introduced in September in Congress that would require the FDA to establish a standardized labeling protocol. While the bill has not been passed, food companies are acting to remove “all natural” designation on their own or because of lawsuits. Over 100 suits have been filed against products ranging from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (which contains partially-hydrogenated oils or trans fats) to Beam, Inc.‘s Skinnygirl alcoholic drinks. One of the thornier issues is whether GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) are natural or not. Judges this past Summer in cases against Gruma Corp.’s Mission tortilla chips and General Mills Inc. Nature Valley granola bars have delayed ruling until the FDA decides whether GMO foods can be marketed as “all natural.”
Advocacy groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest applaud the litigation for keeping food marketers honest, the fallout in court has confused efforts by some companies to deliver healthier foods. For example, PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division dropped the term “all natural” from 80 products that had been reformulated to remove artificial colors and flavors after lawsuits were filed against it for keeping GMOs and additives such as caramel color, citric acid and maltodextrin. The company already paid $9MM this year to settle a suit alleging its Naked Juice contained GMOs and artificial vitamins.