General Mills has signed a settlement agreement prohibiting it from claiming that its Nature Valley granola bars, crispy squares, and trail mix bars are "100% Natural" if those products contain artificial ingredients.
Specifically named in the settlement are high-fructose corn syrup, high-maltose corn syrup, dextrose monohydrate, maltodextrin, soy protein isolate, or several other artificial ingredients.
The agreement applies to labeling and marketing for 30 Nature Valley products and settles a 2012 lawsuit filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and two law firms.
While those ingredients come from corn, they’re produced by treating corn starch with acids, enzymes, or both before being refined into a substance that doesn’t occur in nature.
Gardner said the agreement helps nudge the marketplace, otherwise awash in varyingly flimsy "natural" claims, in the right direction. That's important, because regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have mostly remained on the sidelines as companies and industry trade groups squabble over what’s natural and what's not, he said.
"No acceptable official definition of 'natural' should allow the claim on highly processed ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin, substances that literally do not occur in nature," Gardner said. "But as long as there is no definition, companies will still recklessly make the claim, and consumers will continue to be deceived."
Earlier center legal threats or lawsuits helped prompt companies to drop "natural" claims in connection with 7UP, Capri Sun, Crystal Light, Edy's and Dreyer's ice creams, and Izze soft drinks, Gardner said.
The FDA has a limited definition of natural – foods that do "not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances" – but it rarely enforces it, he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's definition for meat and poultry products focuses on whether ingredients are "minimally processed" or not.
The Food Labeling Modernization Act, introduced in Congress in 2013, would prohibit the use of the word "natural" on a food that includes any synthesized ingredient, or any ingredient that has undergone chemical changes such as corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, high-maltose corn syrup, maltodextrin, chemically modified food starch, or alkalized cocoa.
The bill also calls on the FDA to develop a more encompassing definition of natural.