Visit the website of Nature Valley and there’s no mistaking the message. The company, which is a unit of food giant General Mills, makes granola bars, protein bars, nut clusters and cookies that are invariably displayed against a backdrop of mountain ranges, forests, ski slopes and seascapes. Nature Valley supports our national parks. Nature Valley is “proud to be the official natural granola bar” for the US ski team and the PGA.
Everything–from the company’s name to the “100% Natural” label an its products–just screams natural and, in case you still don’t get the point, there is this:
Though much has changed since Nature Valley introduced the world’s first granola bar in 1975, one thing hasn’t: no matter how many new flavors we create, you can be assured that with Nature Valley you’re always getting The Taste Nature Intended®.
The Taste Nature Intended. Really? Try finding high-fructose corn syrup, high-maltose corn syrup, and maltodextrin in nature. You can’t. But they’re all in Nature Valley snacks.
“Natural” is probably the most overused word in food marketing. To combat the misleading marketing, the Center for Science in the Public Interest last week filed a lawsuit against General Mills accusing Nature Valley of “unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising” as defined by California law and seeking damages on behalf of consumers who bought the project, thinking the ingredients were natural.
Whether the misleading claims merit a hearing in the courts will be up to a judge to decide, but it seems pretty clear to me that Nature Valley products–as well as hundreds of others carrying the “natural” claim–are anything but.
In fact, it’s arguable that almost nothing in the middle aisles of the grocery store is natural. Agriculture itself seeks to tame nature and processed foods are, well, processed. Wild mushrooms are natural. Wild-caught fish, too. But not much else.
Here, for example, is how the lawsuit describes the manufacturing of maltodextrin:
To produce Maltodextrin, acids, enzymes, or acids and enzymes are applied in sequence to a starch slurry to induce partial hydrolysis (saccharification). In other words, the acids or enzymes convert or depolymerize starch to glucose or maltose molecules. Once maltose content is high enough for Maltodextrin, the acids or enzymes are neutralized, removed or deactivated, and the resulting product is then refined, purified, and concentrated.
Try making that in your kitchen.
In a press release, Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said: “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.’”
I emailed General Mills for a response. Kirstie Foster, a company spokeswoman replied:
We are aware of the press release, but to our knowledge, we have not been served with a lawsuit.
I tried again:
Does General Mills have any response to the allegation that the ingredients in Nature Valley products are not “natural?” Setting aside the legal niceties, what does the company mean when it labels products as “natural?”
It’s just not our practice to comment on CSPI press releases about lawsuits that have not been served. I realize you’re now asking other questions as well, but my answer is the same. Sorry, but this lawsuit hasn’t even been served.
CSPI, by the way, says it provided a copy of the complaint to Susan Crockett,, who is Vice President, Senior Technology Officer, Health and Nutrition at General Mills.
Although the chasm between Nature Valley’s marketing and its practices strikes me as vast, I don’t mean here to pick on General Mills. The word natural is everywhere in the grocery store, as are other misleading claims and products that aren’t what they seem.
Two quick examples. As a runner, I pay attention to the energy gels and snacks marketed to athletes. The other day, a running friend opened a package of Clif Shot Blocks identified as Cran-Razz. They are described like this on the website:
Tart cranberry and sweet raspberry – a winning combo that will get you to the finish line.
Perhaps so, perhaps not, but you will never know by eating the Clif Shots, which are made from neither cranberries nor raspberries. The Cran-Razz product — notice that the name does not include the words cranberry or raspberry — contains the following ingredients:
Organic Brown Rice Syrup, Organic Evaporated Cane Juice, Organic Brown Rice Syrup Solids, Pectin, Citric Acid, Colored With Black Carrot Juice Concentrate, Natural Flavor, Organic Sunflower Oil, Carnauba Wax.
Similarly, the folks at Gu Energy sell a variety of gels including one labeled Tri-Berry. It contains chocolate, fructose and sea salt, but no berries. That “Tri” in “Tri-Berry” is an especially nice touch, don’t you think?
Don’t expect the FDA to remedy any of this. Back in 2006, CSPI petitioned the FDA asking the government to establish a definition of “natural.” The agency declined and, to its credit, says as much on its website:
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.
Read labels, folks. And don’t trust, verify.