All posts tagged natural claim

Natural – The “False Advertising Industry”’s Biggest Breakthrough

When it comes to claims on food products is Organic the “real natural”? That’s what Organic Voices, a non-profit organization largely composed of USDA Certified Organic food brands, wants you to believe and their latest communication effort is using humor to prove its point.

You need look no further than an issue of USA Today or The New York Times to know that natural product claims have entered the Top 10 Most Wanted list for the Food Movement, right up there with McDonald’s Happy Meals and sugar sweetened beverages. It’s a drastic change from just a decade ago, when the term was a meaningful badge of quality and healthfulness. Unfortunately for devoted natural foodies, the cache of “natural” caught on a bit too well and as a result has been adopted by a seemingly infinite number of products out to cash in on the term and exploit the lack of criteria provided by our regulatory bodies for how to responsibly use it.

It’s unlikely Organic is the fix for the majority of natural food products on the market today. A more likely answer is the adoption of new labels (i.e. Non-GMO Project Verified, Gluten-Free, Top 8 Allergen-Free) to fill-in the grey space created by natural claims and, ultimately, a continued responsibility of the consumer to read the fine print (and then verify it).

But, as “natural” gets its vigilante justice in a process that is, at times, painful to watch, at least we can take a break to laugh about it.

The Natural Effect

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Image by Organic Voices

It’s Time to Change Tack Navigating “Natural” Claims

Reading the news this morning, I came across an industry article about yet another class action suit over natural claims, this one against Whole Foods Market and their use of a leavening agent, sodium acid pyrophosphate (SAPP), in some of their baked goods.

Honestly, my immediate reaction was to feel badly for Whole Foods. They are an organization who has consistently shown leadership on this topic. In the face of confusion from food manufacturers, lack of guidance from government and mountains of technical details, Whole Foods has done the hard work to set standards (and the bar) for the natural food industry for years. Their Unacceptable Ingredients List which dictates what is and is not allowed in foods sold on their store shelves has had an immeasurable benefit on shaping the natural products industry. (The fact that a list like this is even necessary should be a major indicator as to the state of food today.) Not to mention additional trailblazing efforts such as their 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating system and their announcement last year regarding GMO labeling.

Unfortunately, whether or not you are doing the right thing doesn’t seem to be a consideration factor for getting pulled into a class action lawsuit. Prominence and the resulting amount of publicity and chances for a large settlement seem to be the only criteria to consider.

Having experienced firsthand the toll these suits take on a business in terms of hours worked, money spent and, most importantly, focus and energy taken away from making food better for people and planet, I really believe it’s time to change tack. Instead of working in isolation as brands and businesses, trying to get a handle on the quickly evolving natural and organic landscape behind closed doors while simultaneously hoping we aren’t the next ones to be made an example of in court, what if we pooled our resources and learnings on this issue? If my experience is any indication, we’ve all learned a lot and together should be able to connect the missing dots, solve the mysteries of modern food production once and for all and move the definition of natural forward in a productive, collaborative way. Waiting around for government to tell us what to do clearly isn’t wise, so let’s get together and get ourselves sorted so we can prove to our consumers that we really do know what’s going on and that we have their health and best interests at heart.

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Image by Counse

Recipe for Irony: DIY High-Fructose Corn Syrup

Finally!  No more need to run to the packaged food isle of your local grocery store to get your high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) fix.  Thanks to a Parsons Design graduate student, you can now make your own!  All you’ll need is some sulfuric acid, latex gloves, protective eye goggles and, of course, Yellow Dent #2 corn.

For her thesis project, Maya Weinstein decided to engineer the secret ingredient to the industrialized food system in a domestic kitchen and film it for the world to see.  Maya’s motivation,

There are a lot of videos and articles on the web that talk about how scary and bad HFCS is for you, but there’s not really any information about what it actually is or how it’s made.  I saw a void there that I wanted to fill.

Bravo, Maya.  Clearly, Parsons is also teaching tenacity, as I can report looking up the recipe to HFCS is not as simple as a quick Google search.

A few years ago a few colleagues and I were tasked with a project to dig into the definition of natural for food.  Instead of taking the typical route of creating an “unacceptable ingredients” list (which is common for most companies and retailers like Whole Foods Market), my part of the investigation quickly navigated into the world of processing.  My reasoning: if you walk back far enough into the processing steps, almost all ingredients are natural…I mean, they must come from the earth at some point, right?  So, focusing on finished ingredients is not really the best way to understand naturalness.  Instead, we should make this determination based on what happens to the ingredient between leaving the ground and ending up in a finished food.

Unfortunately, the steps between ground and finished food are often tightly guarded under the guise of “proprietary information” and “trade secrets”.  This is likely why Weinstein identified a void in the internet ethos.  I cannot tell you the number of flow charts I received from ingredient suppliers in the process of my own research with incredibly vague steps like “washing” and “extraction”.  Trade secrets are all well and good except when the secret information is needed to make determinations of health and safety to people and planet health.

Thanks to its celebrity status, HFCS has not managed to stay behind the veil of industry protection.

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Image by Alternative Heat

The Future of Food Labeling

Although small in number, the factors most likely to evolve food labeling laws in 2014 and beyond are rapidly increasing tensions among the various stakeholders in the food industry.  From unprecedented levels of litigation at the state level, to coordinated social media campaigns by special interest groups and a food movement built upon a foundation of increased transparency and simplicity, it seems a perfect storm may be brewing and, like it or not, government is going to have to move the evolution of food labeling laws up the priority list.  Here are some of my predictions for what we can expect to see in 2014 and beyond…

There are few housekeeping issues that are likely to be tidied up by government next year.  After many years of waiting, a FDA proposed rule to evolve the Nutrition Facts panel is likely to be released and will address a range of simple improvements such as adjusting serving sizes, daily values and creating space for additional nutrient declarations.  The Food Labeling Modernization Act has also been introduced to the House and, if passed, would establish a front of pack labeling system, require declaration of products containing caffeine and added sugar and institute a definition for natural.  Given the range of issues covered in this Act, I (along with most other experts) have very little confidence that it will pass.  Other minor improvements that I expect to see in 2014 include the removal of GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status from partially hydrogenated oils (which create trans fats) and an evolved whole grain content criteria statement.

I do not believe government will use 2014 to officially weigh in on some of the key issues fueling the current food movement, i.e. GMO and the definition of natural.  Inaction on these issues means the debate will continue to take place through litigation and social media.  Overall, government will continue their Band-Aid approach, tweaking current systems while standing on the sidelines of more fundamental issues.

Making predictions beyond 2014 is a bit trickier, but I have to believe that at some point the tension created from allowing issues to evolve on a state by state level and through increasingly more polarized special interest platforms will become so great that government will have no choice but to step into the fray.  My bets for what this may look like include:

  1. A sweeping overhaul to current nutrition labels. Nutrition labels are given so much real estate on pack and have so much opportunity to communicate, they absolutely have the ability to work harder than they do currently to communicate on issues consumers want information about.
  2. A national labeling standard for GMO.  Whether this will communicate a presence or absence is not as important as the fact that a national standard must be issued.  Similar to the path for organic, starting with state by state standards, a national standard for GMO labeling is inevitable.
  3. A definition of natural.  It is stunning that although “natural” has been one of the most used marketing terms in food for years, current guidance by FDA/USDA on this term is woefully lacking.  Although the term natural and the issue of GMO are not one in the same, they often travel together in debate and as a result we may see clarification of natural simply due to action on GMO.
  4. Increased restrictions around structure/function claims.  Versus continuing to allow the communication of both attributes and benefits, I see government evolving toward regulations seen in other developed countries in Europe and Canada where marketing communications are in large part restricted only to attributes.  In many ways, this change alone would solve many of the issues fueling current litigation and confusion at the consumer level.

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Image by Grocery Manufacturers Association

Silk Opts out of “Natural”

7 silk opts out of soy imageThe claim “natural” has exploded over the last ten years on everything from potato chips to t-shirt fabric to mattress bedding.  So, it’s especially interesting that Silk, a leading manufacturer of soy and other non-dairy beverages, made a recent announcement that they have decided to remove this claim from their products.

The term “natural” is messy for sure.  Largely left open for interpretation due to a lack of regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, what it means in terms of a standard is left up to the companies creating and marketing the products.  Responsibility ultimately falls to the consumer, to do their own research to determine which brands fit with their expectations for what a natural product should be.

Some of you may remember that back in early 2009, Silk received quite a bit of negative press for silently making a switch to non-organic soy beans for their soymilk.  It is a misstep they seem to have recovered from, but I have to assume the experience taught a valuable lesson on transparency and had a major influence on their decision to so publically detail this decision and the reasoning behind it.

Personally, I think it was a good move.  Although “natural” is a powerful term and one I am personally quite connected to, I am bothered by its lack of clarity and wish for claims that more clearly guide positive choices for consumers.

For now, “USDA Organic” and “Non-GMO Project Verified” are some of the best ways to credibly communicate clean food.  Until the FDA or a reputable non-governmental organization steps in to regulate the term, “natural” will continue to be vague.

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Thank you, Silk, for the use of your images.