Earlier this week, The New York Times columnist/nutritionist/penultimate “foodie” Mark Bittman wrote an op-ed about our consumer culture’s over-emphasis on the word “organic.”
His point? Eating better and living healthier lives has very little to do with whether the products one buys are technically organic–even though there’s a clear and important distinction between agricultural practices that qualify and those that don’t. Non-organic lettuce, for example, is far healthier than organic crackers–and the fact that Ben & Jerry’s products hew to certain production standards does not in any way mean that they’re healthy.
When it comes to marketing practices, of course, it’s a different story–and Kellogg is only the latest company to agree (under court order) that the phrase “all-natural” as it exists in the market today is completely meaningless.
Companies can use labels to imply whatever the hell they want.
While “all-natural” implies that a product has certain vague health properties, it really has no specific connotation–and we can blame the FDA’s inaction for this (at least in part). So when a Kellogg spokesperson tells the Times:
“We stand behind our advertising and labeling practices…and will continue to ensure our foods meet our high quality and nutrition standards while delivering the great taste people expect.”
…he/she is not technically lying.
The issue is that Kashi cereal, long seen as the healthiest thing around primarily because it tastes like toasted cardboard, claimed to be “all-natural” while containing:
“…ingredients like pyridoxine hydrochloride, calcium pantothenate and soy oil processed using hexane, a component of gasoline.”
Again, this isn’t a straight-up lie because such elements do occur in nature–but they’re processed using components that you will never find on a pristine forest floor.
While it’s ridiculous for consumers to believe that a bunch of bran flakes will prevent cancer or improve their “heart health” or generally give them a certain kind of “glow”, it’s also ridiculous for brands to base perceptions of their products on such meaningless claims.
The big problem: until the FDA gets its sh*t together and defines common phrases like these, companies will continue using them–while getting sued and suffering terrible publicity for doing so.