Integrative Nutrition Blog

Two Mothers Sue General Mills Over “Natural” Labeling Scam

August 1, 2012

Do maltodextrin, high maltose corn syrup, and soy lecithin sound “natural” to you? Two California mothers don’t think so, and they’re suing General Mills with the claim that marketing the Nature Valley products that contain these ingredients as such is nothing more than a labeling scam.

As awareness about preventive healthcare grows, people are eager to improve their eating habits and purchase food they perceive to be wholesome. Such eagerness has fueled the aura surrounding the “organic” label, spurring manufacturers to perpetuate an unfortunate hoax in which organic crème-filled cookies and cheese puffs are falsely marketed as healthy.

The abuse of the term “natural” has become even more insidious. According to the New York Times, various surveys have found that consumers prefer foods labeled as “natural” even to organic – and while organic labeling is regulated by government standards, there are no such requirements for the term “natural.”

In fact, the FDA has no definition for the term and does not object to its use as long as the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances – an ambiguous stance that has given rise to deceptive marketing strategies that position junk food as healthy and wholesome.

To say that food manufacturers use the term “natural” loosely is an understatement. In 2007, Snapple was sued for marketing drinks that contain high fructose corn syrup as “all natural,” and though the company later said it would no longer market these products with the misleading term, the judge ruled in Snapple’s favor.

The current lawsuit against General Mills charges the company with false advertising, and at particular issue are the ingredients high maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin. “High maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin are highly processed, do not exist in nature, and not even under the most elastic possible definition could they be considered ‘natural,’” said Michael F. Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and an Integrative Nutrition visiting teacher.

This is not the first time that General Mills has come under scrutiny over criticism about fraudulent labeling practices. In 2009, General Mills was cited in a functional food scam when the FDA issued a warning about the health claims made on boxes of Cheerios.

So how can you avoid the “natural” labeling scam? As always, stick with products that have a short list of ingredients that you can identify and pronounce. And of course, go for whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible and remember that truly natural foods don’t have a label at all!

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