Katie M. Scholz | 2 January 2013
(Thomson Reuters) – General Mills markets itself as a company committed to sustainability, with many natural and healthy products. In fact, nature and wildlife images dominate the Nature Valley® social media campaign. However, while there is increasing consumer preference for natural foods, there currently is no regulatory definition for ‘natural,’ creating many confused customers. For General Mills, this recently resulted in a lawsuit over the Nature Valley® product line, marketed as “100% Natural.” This is not the first lawsuit over the term “natural” in marketing, and, until there are clear regulations defining what ingredients qualify as “natural,” it will not be the last.
The current lawsuit charges General Mills with false advertising and anticompetitive behavior. The complaint alleges the Nature Valley® Granola products are not ‘100% Natural,’ as stated on the packaging, because they include highly processed ingredients. The ingredients at issue (high fructose corn syrup, high-maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin) thicken and sweeten many snack products, not just Nature Valley® granola bars. General Mills moved to dismiss the suit as based on junk science that improperly distinguishes between natural and non-natural in food product processing.
General Mills is one of many companies taking advantage of marketing buzz words like “natural” and “organic.” Unfortunately, while there are definitions and regulatory standards regarding “organic” products, there are no equivalent clarifications regarding “natural” ingredients. Currently, each food producer sets their own standards, which may not match individual consumer preferences regarding controversial issues like genetically modified ingredients or the use of high fructose corn syrup. The FDA allows the term’s use in advertising so long as there is no added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. The only consumer recourse against vague advertising seems to be in unfair advertising lawsuits.
But how successful should these lawsuits be? False advertising suits turn on whether reasonable consumers would be deceived by advertising claims, as well as whether fine print (or an ingredient list) ameliorates the confusion. The recent string of lawsuits over the use of ‘natural’ in advertising makes it clear that at least some consumers are confused about what the term means.
However, regardless of what product packaging says, consumers do have an immediate opportunity to verify such claims simply by turning the product over and looking at ingredient labels and nutritional information to identify offending ingredients like high fructose corn syrup. Going forward, these cases may turn on who should bear the burden of due diligence: corporate marketing departments or the supermarket shopper?
Consumer interest in avoiding highly-processed food additives is growing each year. The food industry is responding by providing their versions of “natural” options to cater to this growing market. The lawsuit over Nature Valley® granola is just the latest example of conflicting definitions resulting in consumer confusion. It may be time for the government to come forward with clear definitions for consumers and food producers. Consumers also need to practice due diligence in purchasing decisions by looking at ingredient lists and nutrition information. Additionally, companies must work harder to provide clarity and transparency in advertising.