A pair of California moms has brought a lawsuit against General Mills charging the food giant with deceptively marketing its Nature Valley products. On packaging and in ads, the line of granola bars is described as “100% natural.” But these products are actually packed with highly processed ingredients, the women say.
That much is true: Nature Valley’s “100% natural” snacks contain ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, high maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin (a thickener that also adds sweetness). According to the complaint, high-maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin are both produced using complicated industrial methods.
“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, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and co-counsel in the lawsuit, in a press release. There are few advocacy groups I hate more than CSPI (seriously, it’s loonier than PETA), but the man does have a point there.
Or maybe not. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has carefully defined the standards a product must meet to be considered “organic” but not so much for “natural,” leaving room for food makers to get quite, uh, whimsical in their definitions.
Plaintiff Amy McKendrick said her only motive in bringing the suit–which charges General Mills with false advertising–is making other people aware that “something can say it’s 100 percent natural on the outside and not be 100 percent natural.” An admirable aim, sure. But how can a company falsely or illegally use a word for which there is no legal definition? All things considered, it doesn’t seem like McKendrick and co. have much of a case.
Of course, I’m no lawyer; please weigh in and correct me if you are and I’m just totally wrong in my understanding of this case. But even if I am wrong, and General Mills is found guilty of false advertising … well, so what? They may have to change the ingredients or the packaging for a dozen types of granola bars. And every other company out there just slapping “natural” on products willy-nilly will continue business as usual. Ultimately, it just highlights why we need the FDA to set some ground rules here.