It's only natural. Or maybe it's not.

It's only natural. Or maybe it's not.

A plethora of class action lawsuits have been filed in the last few years alleging that customers were deceived by a product's claim that it is made from "natural" ingredients" or the product is "all natural." (You can find a list and description of these suits on the Top Class Actions website by typing in the search term "natural.")  It's hard to know who to have less sympathy for in these suits: the consumers who are scientifically illiterate enough to believe that a product is superior solely because its ingredients are "natural" or the companies who are trying to exploit the consumer craze for all things "natural" by marketing their products as such.  I could go either way.

The allegations in these suits center around the claims that the products advertised as natural actually contain GMOs and/or man-made ingredients.  Food products are the most common subjects of these suits, but not exclusively. Makers of sunscreen, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, cosmetics and disposable diapers have also been hit.  

I do have to wonder how serious about their health some of these plaintiffs are. For example, class actions have been filed involving the following products:

  • Trader Joe's chocolate and chocolate vanilla creme cookies, jumbo cinnamon rolls and buttermilk biscuits
  • Snyder's Cape Cod chips and reduced fat tortilla chips
  • Alexia mashed potatoes and waffle fries
  • Bryer's ice cream
  • Marie Callendar's muffin mixes
  • Kettle TIAS tortilla chips
  • Frito Lay bean dip
  • Nonni's biscotti
  • Whole Foods muffins, chocolate chip cookies and apple pie
  • Ben and Jerry's ice cream
  • Dryer's ice cream
  • Swiss Miss cocoa products
  • Crisco oil

If you are knocking back chips with bean dip, cinnamon rolls, cookies, and apple pie a la mode with a cup of cocoa it is unlikely that GMO ingredients are going to get you first. You'll probably go out with a nice heart attack instead. 

Many of these suits have settled, with the consumers getting a few bucks each. And I do mean "a few."  The Trader Joe's settlement gives consumers between $2.70 and $3.99 each for up to 10 products without proof of purchase.  For more than that, you must have proof that you actually bought these items.  If you save grocery receipts long enough to make a claim for 11 or more items, in my book you deserve compensation just for being so organized.  

Not all of these suits have been successful. In 2013, Maritza Pelayo filed a class action lawsuit against Nestle alleging that that she had purchased  Buitoni Three Cheese Tortellini and the Buitoni Spinach Cheese Tortellini because of the “all natural” label. She discovered later that they include artificial or synthetic ingredients such as xanthan gum, a synthetic soy lecithin, sodium citrate, maltodextrin and sodium phosphate.  

A California federal district judge dismissed the suit, ruling that plaintiff had failed to offer a consistent definition of what, exactly, "all natural" means.  

For example, Plaintiff offers the Webster’s Dictionary definition of ‘natural,’ meaning ‘produced or existing in nature’ and ‘not artificial or manufactured.’

Yet, as the judge noted, even plaintiff herself admitted that these definitions do not entirely apply to Buitoni Pasta products since they are not “springing fully-formed from Ravioli trees and Tortellini bushes.”  He also found that the plaintiff failed to show that any of the ingredients used in these Buitoni pasta products are indeed artificial, according to the definition used by the FDA.

What is natural? What is artificial? Most importantly, does it matter?  















Points of Interest 06/15/2014
Gloria Thomas Memorial Week