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Steviol glycosides are not ‘all-natural’, says new class action lawsuit

3 commentsBy Elaine Watson , 16-Mar-2012
Last updated the 16-Mar-2012 at 15:51 GMT

A class action lawsuit filed in California this week argues that steviol glycosides should not be considered natural, owing to the "chemical processing" sometimes used to extract them from the stevia leaf.

The complaint, filed by law firm Finkelstein Thompson LLP on behalf of plaintiff Kevin Anderson on March 12, is the latest in a string of class action lawsuits filed against firms including PepsiCo, Kellogg, ConAgra and Kraft for allegedly misleading consumers with ‘all-natural’ claims.

Anderson argues that Jamba Juice’s ‘all-natural’ smoothie kits deceive consumers because they contain “unnaturally processed, synthetic and/or non-natural ingredients” including ascorbic acid, citric acid, xanthan gum… and steviol glycosides.

While some of these ingredients might be derived from a natural source, says the complaint, the extraction and processing methods mean that shoppers would no longer consider them to be ‘natural’.

“A reasonable consumer would not consider food products containing unnaturally processed, synthetic substances or substances created via chemical processing to be ‘all-natural’.”

Steviol glycosides

As for obtaining steviol glycosides from stevia leaves, it says: “Although there are numerous extraction methods, some involve adding chloroform or hexane to dried plant leaves…

“Flocculants such as calcium hydroxide and aluminum sulfate may be used to facilitate the removal of undesired accompanying substances. Steviol glycosides are the demineralized and decolorized with ion exchangers and spray dried.”

It adds: “At times, concentrated solutions of hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide are used to regenerate ion exchange resins.”

Stevia industry source: This is getting very silly...

However, a stevia industry source said the wording of the complaint was very misleading.

He said: "Stevia can be extracted using some of the methods described in the lawsuit, although the major suppliers do not use these methods, so it is a bit of a blanket statement. We don't use hexane or hydrochloric acid, for example. Customers also ask detailed questions about extraction methods and they want us to walk them through every step of the process.

"But the more important point - that I think a 'reasonable consumer' would understand - is that if I open a pack of Reb-A sweetener or if I went into my backyard and chewed on a stevia leaf, the same molecule would pass my lips. And it is natural.

"All agricultural ingredients have to go through processing before they get to the consumer. This lawsuit is manipulating facts in order to paint something in a graver light."

Attorney: The growing threat of civil litigation

Speaking to this publication last month, Justin Prochnow, shareholder at law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, said the lack of a legal definition of natural meant opportunistic plaintiffs’ attorneys were having a field day with all-natural claims.

He added: "Because the FDA has declined to formalize a definition of natural, plaintiffs' lawyers have seized upon the opportunity to file lawsuits over the use of 'all natural', knowing that the ultimate decision of whether a product is truly natural or not is one that will often have to be decided by a judge or jury.

"That usually means a long, drawn out case that forces many defendants to settle the case or risk huge legal fees, so the lack of a formal definition of natural is a great situation for plaintiffs' lawyers."

Speaking at the Nutracon conference last week, he added: “One of the biggest threats to the dietary supplements industry right now is the growing threat of civil litigation. You have to think at the moment, is it really worth making an all-natural claim?”

Is FDA 1993 definition very useful?

The FDA follows a 1993 policy that states: “[FDA] has not objected to the use of the term[natural]on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”

However, this does not help firms fighting lawsuits over high fructose corn syrup; partially hydrogenated vegetable oils; ingredients extracted using organic solvents such as hexane; GMOs; pesticides and a whole raft of other ingredients some stakeholders argue do not belong in a product labeled as ‘all-natural’.

Writing in the blog of the Washington Legal Foundation last month, director of outreach Stephen Richer said the FDA should take action to address this issue, adding: “Legislatures, or regulatory bodies acting as an agents of the legislature, are far better suited to define politicized, complex terms like ‘natural’ than are judges and juries through class action litigation.”

Jamba Juice

Founded in 1990, Jamba Juice Company is a leading food and beverage retailer with more than 760 stores selling smoothies, juices, yogurt and other products. It has developed a range of consumer packaged goods including frozen bars and smoothie kits, which come in five flavors and feature the ‘all-natural’ claim.

A spokesperson said: “We just received the suit and are investigating the allegations.  At this point, we have every reason to believe the ‘all natural’ claims on the smoothie kits are in full compliance with FDA guidelines.”

 

3 comments (Comments are now closed)

What is 'natural', anyway?

The complaint also mentions ascorbic acid (vitamin C), citric acid (sour salt), and xanthan gum (gluten-free thickener) as being examples of "unnatural" substances. All three of these are usually produced industrially by fermenting sugars from plant sources and then chemically or mechanically purifying the result. They certainly aren't synthetic in the same sense as nylon cloth.

Now, my own grocery shopping consists primarily of foods that need no ingredient labels. They are nutritious and relatively inexpensive. But let's not pretend that chemically pure citric acid is somehow more injurious to your health than the citric acid mixture known as bottled lemon juice.

It seems to me that the real problem is not how "processed" some ingredients might be, but a failure to fill our bellies with enough vegetables, leaving room for unhealthy excesses with other ingredients, "natural" and "unnatural" alike.

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Posted by N
04 June 2012 | 06h37

What does "natural" mean, anyway?

The complaint also mentions ascorbic acid (vitamin C), citric acid (sour salt), and xanthan gum (gluten-free thickener) as being examples of "unnatural" substances. All three of these are usually produced industrially by fermenting sugars from plant sources and then chemically or mechanically purifying the result. They certainly aren't synthetic in the same sense as nylon cloth.

Now, my own grocery shopping consists primarily of foods that need no ingredient labels. They are nutritious and relatively inexpensive. But let's not pretend that chemically pure citric acid is somehow more injurious to your health than the citric acid mixture known as bottled lemon juice.

It seems to me that the real problem is not how "processed" some ingredients might be, but a failure to fill our bellies with enough vegetables, leaving room for unhealthy excesses with other ingredients, "natural" and "unnatural" alike.

Report abuse

Posted by N
04 June 2012 | 06h17

Class Action Suits

The sad thing with all these lawsuits is, the lawyers don't care. They can say what they want in an interview, but I would bet the farm that 99+% of them could not care less. This is all a pay day for them.

All they are doing is increasing the cost of products offered due to court costs and settlement.

I am not saying that all the nutrient or natural claims out there are correct. But the shear number and pettiness of a lot of the lawsuits is out of control.

Rather than tie up our court system, direct your energies to the FDA, USDA, and other agencies which regulate our products if you feel that strongly about these issues. Oh wait, what am I saying, there is no pay day there. So that should tell you that these lawyers are not working in your best interests. Only theirs.

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Posted by Mike
08 May 2012 | 20h44

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