A lawsuit filed in Hawaii alleges that Cargill is misleading shoppers by marketing its Truvia retail products as ‘natural’ as the Reb-A steviol glycosides they contain are "highly chemical processed" and the bulking agent used (erythritol) is “synthetically made”.
The complaint, filed by plaintiff Denise Howerton et al, is the latest in a string of class action lawsuits filed against large food and beverage companies for allegedly misleading consumers with ‘natural’ claims.
Plaintiff: Reb-A is ‘purified through a harsh chemical process’
While the Reb-A in the Truvia consumer product is derived from a natural source (the stevia leaf), says Howerton, the extraction and processing methods mean a reasonable consumer would no longer consider it to be ‘natural’.
She adds: “Cargill describes the process of obtaining stevia leaf extract as similar to making tea, but does not tell the consumer that Cargill then adds ethanol, methanol, or rubbing alcohol to this so-called ‘tea’ in a patented multi-step process to purify it…
“Reb-A is not the natural crude preparation of stevia but rather is a highly chemically processed and purified form of stevia leaf extract.”
Fermentation process used to make erythritol renders it “synthetic” claims plaintiff
Meanwhile, erythritol, a zero calorie, tooth-friendly bulk sweetener about 60-70% as sweet as sugar that is combined with Reb-A in the Truvia product in question, is “synthetically made”, alleges Howerton.
While erythritol is naturally present in foods such as pears, Cargill is producing it in commercial quantities using a process Howerton claims renders it “synthetic” rather than “natural”.
She adds: "Cargill manufactures Truvia's synthetic erythritol in a patented process by first chemically extracting starch from GM corn and then converting the starch to glucose through the biochemical process of enzymatic hydrolysis.
"The glucose is then fermented utilizing moniliella pollinis, a yeast."
She concludes: "Truvia is 99% erythritol, and thus, it also cannot be considered a natural product."
A reasonable consumer, she says, "understands a natural product to be one that does not contain man-made synthetic ingredients, is not subject to harsh chemical processes and is only minimally processed."
Case is not the first to allege that commercially produced steviol glycosides are not ‘natural’
The lawsuit is not the first to single out stevia, and follows a high-profile complaint filed by plaintiff Kevin Anderson in March 2012 alleging that Jamba Juice’s ‘all-natural’ smoothie kits deceived consumers because they contain “unnaturally processed, synthetic and/or non-natural ingredients” including steviol glycosides.
Commenting on the case, however, a stevia industry source told FoodNavigator-USA that reasonable consumers would understand that “agricultural ingredients have to go through processing before they get to the consumer”.
He said: "The 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."
Natural label claims
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; maltodextrin; partially hydrogenated vegetable oils; ingredients extracted using organic solvents such as hexane; GMOs and a whole raft of other substances some stakeholders argue do not belong in a product labeled as ‘natural’.
CSPI: Consumers are entitled to be incorrect
In a recent interview with FoodNavigator-USA about 'natural' claims, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) director of litigation Stephen Gardner said that what matters in such cases is how a reasonable consumer would interpret the claims in question.
He added: “As I’ve frequently said as a consumer lawyer in these cases, I don’t care what a scientist or indeed a lawyer thinks ‘natural’ means.
“All that matters is what consumers think 'natural' means. And consumers are entitled to be incorrect.”
Cargill: These claims are false... We plan to aggressively defend the lawsuit
Nicole Reichert, external communications manager for Cargill Corn Milling North America, told FoodNavigator-USA that Cargill will aggressively defend the suit.
She added: "A class action lawsuit was brought against Cargill’s Truvia natural sweetener consumer products claiming they should not be marketed as natural. These claims are false. We stand behind our Truvia natural sweetener products, and we plan to aggressively defend the lawsuit."
Click here to read more about 'natural' claims and what we can learn from recent lawsuits in this area.
Click here to listen to a presentation from BraunHagey & Borden LLP attorney Rebecca Cross, who explored the legal implications of using natural claims on pack at FoodNavigator-USA's recent Natural & Clean Label Trends 2013 event.