WASHINGTON -- As consumers continue to spurn artificial ingredients and demand healthier snacks, public-interest groups have filed several lawsuits over the use of the words "healthy" and "natural."
The trick, however, is how exactly to define those words, and then how to apply criteria for using them to describe a food product, a task the Food and Drug Administration has undertaken.
Even as consumers tell marketers they want more "natural" foods in their diets, few agree on what exactly that means. And that has opened the doors to a spate of class-action lawsuits.
The latest came on Tuesday, Oct. 4, when PepsiCo was sued by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group. The lawsuit says PepsiCo is misleading consumers by marketing its Naked Juice beverages as healthier than they really are. For example, the suit cites the company's Pomegranate Blueberry juice, noting it accurately advertises that it is a no-sugar-added beverage, but a single 15.2-ounce container has 61 grams of sugar, about 50% more sugar than a 12-ounce can of Pepsi.
CSPI also takes exception with taglines such as "only the best ingredients" and "just the healthiest fruits and vegetables," noting that consumers are paying higher prices for the healthful and expensive ingredients advertised on Naked labels but are predominantly getting apple juice.
PepsiCo has called the lawsuit baseless and says in a statement that "any sugar present in Naked Juice products comes from the fruits and/or vegetables contained within and the sugar content is clearly reflected on label for all consumers to see."
Other manufacturers that have been hit recently with similar lawsuits include:
- General Mills Nature Valley granola bars: Suits filed on behalf of the Organic Consumers Association, Moms Across America and Beyond Pesticides claim the company misrepresents the oats used in the bars as "100% natural" because they contain trace levels of pesticide residue called glyphosate.
- Quaker Oats: Like the General Mills case, a lawsuit filed in federal district courts in New York and California contends that the "100% natural" claim is false and misleading after traces of glyphosate were found.
- Post Foods: A similar lawsuit claims Post Shredded Wheat products should not be labeled "100% natural" because of trace levels of glyphosate.
- Welch's fruit snacks: A lawsuit filed in 2015 claims false advertising over the label "made with real fruit," and an August ruling in a district court in New York said consumers may be misled by the package. Both sides continue to battle.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working to update the definition of what is considered to be "healthy." In announcing the review, the FDA opened a public-comment period through January 2017. The call for comments, which can be submitted electronically or in writing, asks consumers and stakeholders to define their understanding of the term "healthy" in food products.
In general, the FDA says food should only be marketed as healthy if it meets certain criteria: fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol and valuable nutrients such as vitamin C or calcium. The levels vary by category but there is no legal definition of the term "healthy."