The suit has been filed in the Northern District of California US District Court by two individuals, Judith Janney and Amy McKendrick, who say they bought Nature Valley granola bars and thins because they prefer to consume all-natural foods out of concern that artificial ingredients may have adverse health effects.
The plaintiffs seek class action status for the lawsuit, as well as an order that General Mills stop describing its Nature Valley products as natural.
According to court documents, because production of maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup and high maltose corn syrup “requires multiple processing steps in an industrial environment, which transform starches into substances that are not found in nature, they cannot be described as “Natural.””
However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no definition of what qualifies as natural, although it does not object to the term “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.”
In addition, use of the term ‘natural’ is not permitted in the ingredient list, apart from in the phrase ‘natural flavorings’.
The CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest) litigation department is acting as co-counsel in the suit. It said it privately raised its concern over the use of high fructose corn syrup in Nature Valley products in 2010, and General Mills responded that it intended to remove the ingredient within one year. However, CSPI has taken issue with the company’s continued use of high maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin in products labeled as natural.
"High maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin are highly processed, do not exist in nature, and not even under the most elastic possible definition could they be considered 'natural,'" said Michael Jacobson, CSPI executive director.
The lawsuit is just the latest in a mass of complaints over food manufacturers’ use of the word ‘natural’. In recent months, a suit was filed in a southern California district court against Kashi, and two class action lawsuits were filed against ConAgra for marketing its Wesson range of cooking oils as ‘100% natural’ and ‘pure’ while they contain genetically modified ingredients.
Last year, Snapple beat a lawsuit that was filed over its use of the word natural for products that contained high fructose corn syrup.
This latest complaint is available online here.
UPDATE: No one from General Mills replied to a request for comment prior to publication, but a spokesperson contacted FoodNavigator-USA later to say that the company was "aware of the press release, but to our knowledge, we have not been served with a lawsuit."