What Food Companies Won’t Tell You About This Popular Claim

Earlier this summer, a federal judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit against General Mills, the corporate food giant behind more than 100 popular brands. At issue was the word “natural.”

A citizen group filed the lawsuit last August. The group argued that trace amounts of glyphosate, a potentially cancer-causing herbicide, were likely present in the “100% natural” oats used in Nature Valley granola bars. But Judge Michael J. Davis of the U.S. District Court of Minnesota ruled that even if the oats were tainted with a poisonous chemical, “there is no allegation that the oats, themselves, are not natural.” 

General Mills is a monolithic international food corporation headquartered on a lush, sprawling campus in Golden Valley, Minnesota, a busy suburb of Minneapolis. Like many food companies, it jumped on the popularity of natural years ago. Natural is not federally regulated, which means food companies can define it how they want. “Companies can slap that magic word on processed food packages even if what’s inside contains artificial ingredients,” writes Consumer Reports.

Last spring, the Food and Drug Administration requested public comments on the issue. To date there has been no published follow-up, so I asked the agency where things stood. “The FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term natural,” Deborah Katz, an FDA spokesperson, told me, “but we expect the term natural to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.”

Most people I talk to expect the same thing. But consumers need to know that’s not the way it is. To quote my friend and colleague Hannah Brilling, R.D., Co-op nutrition specialist, “Natural means nothing, basically.”

General Mills told the Minneapolis Star Tribune it was “pleased with the court’s ruling.”


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Ken Davis

Ken Davis is the Co-op's senior copywriter. Email him at kdavis@coopfoodstore.com.