If there is anything we can learn from the Nutella case, it’s that product manufacturers marketing their goods as healthful choices better be damn sure there is full transparency. In other words, they’re gonna have to stop this thing called “marketing” where they list all the “pros” of their product on the front and then conveniently forget to draw attention to the “cons,” which even though they are clearly visible on the nutrition label on the back, seem too convoluted to be understood by the average consumer. Food labels have become akin to online dating profiles where we list how well-read we are, how good looking we are, etc. and conveniently leave out that we love fava beans, if ya know what I mean.
So, the latest company getting some flack from consumers, is Kashi.
Kashi, who is owned by Kellogg’s, has consistently marketed itself as a healthful company. I have found, in my own experience, that Kashi foods do not fit my bill of “healthful” and I can find better alternatives elsewhere. But I’m privileged in that I’ve spent the past 9 years of my life becoming extremely food literate. Other people, not so much. And, maybe that is the problem – in addition, clearly, to deceptive labeling – but we’ll talk about that another time. The point is that one small grocer in Rhode Island started the Kashi controversy when he posted a note, where he used to stock Kashi cereals, telling his customers that he wouldn’t sell the cereal because it had just come to his attention (via the Cornucopia Institute) that the brand uses GMOs & non-organic ingredients. Someone took a picture of the note and the rest is, as we say, viral history. Gotta love social media’s ability to check brands when the FDA won’t. You see, people are pissed because Kashi uses the largely unregulated term, “natural.”
Kashi, however, is not doing anything illegal. The term “natural” is meaningless from a legal perspective since there are no USDA or FDA regulations specifying what a natural product is or, more importantly, regulating the use of the term. The FDA says, “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” This is still widely subjective, but I’d wager that many consumers would actually argue that GMOs are synthetic substances.
According to Fooducate, one in four new products launched in 2010 had a label claiming it was “Natural.” But consumers are becoming more and more cognizant of this potential loophole and demanding more regulation. According to Food Navigator:
Consumers on the lookout for eco-friendly claims are skeptical about the term ‘natural’, and two-thirds would favor a uniform standard to certify natural claims, according to a new survey.
In Elizabeth Weise’s reporting via USA Today, David Desouza, Kashi’s general manager believes Kashi is not in the wrong. “The FDA has chosen not to regulate the term ‘natural.’” Weise writes, “The company [Kashi] defines natural as ‘food that’s minimally processed, made with no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or sweeteners.’” Way to pull a VitaminWater, dude.
The larger and more complex question is what should be done with food marketing and food labeling in general. What I see as the biggest con to food advertising is that consumers have become accustomed to listening and relying on the food companies to tell them why they should eat their products rather than relying on their own research. The truth of the matter is that the only thing that will save both consumers and food companies is true transparency. We have a right to know if there are GMOs in our foods (you can try to make this happen here); if the EU labels its GMO products, the US should too (& while we’re at it, can we get the same laws banning certain cancerous artificial colors?). Also, the FDA should consider putting restrictions on what can qualify as “natural” because, right now, it’s a rogue label and it’s screwing with all of us.
The Cranky One