Ben & Jerry's Taking "All Natural" Off Labels

Companies are being called out for misleading health claims on food labels

Health-conscious consumers like to read food labels. Whether it’s cereal brands or organic cookies, we diligently compare ingredients, nutrition data and health claims, and try to choose the products that appear the most healthful. But food labels are a tricky business, and consumers are not always getting what they think they’ve paid for.

Two food companies have come under fire this week for putting misleading claims on their labels. Ben & Jerry’s will voluntarily remove the phrase “all natural” from all of its ice cream after the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a public health watchdog, complained that 48 of their 53 flavors contain artificial ingredients, such as cocoa processed with alkali, corn syrup, anhydrous dextrose and maltodextrin. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged the pomegranate juice company POM Wonderful with making “false and unsubstantiated” health claims that their products prevent or treat heart disease, prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction.

Not that any of us ever thought a pint of ice cream with over 100 grams of artery-clogging fat was health food, but I did wonder how ice cream loaded with candy bar bits could ever be considered all natural. Turns out, “natural” is a bit of a moving target -- at least where ingredients are concerned. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates food labeling, has no formal definition of the phrase “natural,” and has no plans to define it. Rather, they state that the term is okay to use so long as food products touting it contain no artificial or synthetic substances, including artificial flavors or colors. High-fructose corn syrup was allowed to be in the all-natural lineup until 2008. No doubt other ingredients will fall off the wagon as they come under public scrutiny as well. Since the term is so nebulous, many food marketers lay claim to the phrase in order to make their products seem more healthful. But lots of stuff in nature, like sugar, tobacco and psychedelic mushrooms, to name a few, are in no way good for us. Even deli meats, which are high in sodium, nitrates and fat, are allowed to claim they’re all-natural, since no man-made chemicals are used in the curing process.

In a letter to CSPI, Ben & Jerry’s chief executive Jostein Solheim said that they stand by their belief that their products are all natural “as reasonable consumers would understand the term,” but would remove the term to avoid controversy. They have no plans to change any of their recipes, and will continue their focus on using high-quality ingredients, such as cage-free eggs and hormone-free milk bought from family farms.

The situation with POM Wonderful is different -- and much more serious. The FTC’s complaint states that POM Wonderful violated federal law by making deceptive claims that their juice, pills and extracts prevent and treat diseases.

Touted as the latest and greatest superfood, POM Wonderful claimed its juice has "super health powers," that includes slowing the rate of prostate cancer, reducing arterial plaque by 30 percent and treating erectile dysfunction 40 percent as well as Viagra. Those are some mighty claims, which the FTC says are unfounded.

“When a company touts scientific research in its advertising, the research must squarely support the claims made. Contrary to POM Wonderful’s advertising, the available scientific information does not prove that POM Juice or POMx effectively treats or prevents these illnesses,” explained David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a written statement.

According to the complaint, the studies conducted by POM Wonderful did not show any heart-health benefit from using its products, nor were they any better than a placebo at treating erectile dysfunction. The FTC is asking that POM Wonderful get pre-approval from the FDA on any and all health claims in the future. In a related case, POM’s former head of scientific affairs and expert endorser, Mark Dreher, has agreed to a settlement that prevents him from making health claims for POM Wonderful or any other product without scientific evidence.

Meanwhile, the company’s owners, billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick, stand by their products and their health claims and intend to file their own lawsuit to protect their First Amendment rights.

As for me, I guess I won’t be giving much credence to the term “all natural” any time soon. And, I suppose all this hoopla is just one more reason to not put too much faith into any one superfood. As researchers are finding out, blueberries and pomegranates may have loads of antioxidants, but fruits and vegetables work better together, when part of a balanced diet. While it can’t hurt to drink a glass of pomegranate juice every day, it’s certainly not going to undo the damage of eating a sugar-glazed donut along with it. Instead, add it to a diet that’s loaded with plenty of colorful vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. After all, it doesn’t get more natural or healthful than that.

Do you feel mislead by labeling claims? Chime in below.

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