Fast Company

Why "All Natural" Is Bad

Recently, the Ben & Jerry's brand announced that it had decided to take the phrase "All Natural" off some of their ice cream and frozen yogurt packages. This is in response to a request from The Center for the Science in the Public Interest who challenged B&J's use of materials that "underwent changes in molecular structure." By this definition, ingredients like alkalized cocoa, invert sugar, even baking soda are considered "unnatural." Ben & Jerry's said that they took this step in order to avoid, in their words, debating what the word "natural" means.

By acquiescing, some consumers may infer that Ben & Jerry's admitted to doing something wrong. In discussions today, others wondered why CSPI went after Ben & Jerry's, citing other products with a much higher artificial ingredient count. It's hard to come down definitively on either side of this debate because "natural" has no standard definition ... it's all up for interpretation. And that's the problem.

"Natural" is a remnant of an earlier age. Back when, it was a code word to a specific niche of consumers who took on faith that if a brand called itself "natural" then it probably was. Good will and trust reigned. The very small market, of both consumers and producers of these products, had a common, generally agreed upon definition for "natural," anyways. The "natural" movement was more a belief system than a marketing program. And at that time, the vague promise of "natural" was about the best you could say regarding most mass-produced and consumed food products.

But times have changed. Consumers have become smarter. Information is more readily available, both on the Web and at the shelf via your smart phone. Today consumers know about rGBH and BPA and where their strawberries come from and the conditions of the workers who picked them. Vague promises are no longer enough. Consumers want (and are making decisions based on) hard facts. Metrics are in--and increasingly brands are finding that vague promises like "Natural" are out.

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2 Comments

  • Russ Meyer

    Andrew - thanks for your thoughts. CSPI does get a lot of folks noses out of joint and seems good @ getting press. I think B&J just got tired of constantly defending itself. I'm all for calling out crazy chemicals in our food, but I've never really considered baking soda as 'unnatural'. I do think consumers moving towards more specificity in terms, rather than relying on vague words like 'natural' and 'lite' is a good thing, however.

  • Andrew Krause

    The Centers for Science in the Public Interest is the "Westboro Baptist Church" of consumer advocacy. They have a gift for hyperbole that borders on the insulting for those of us who are educated beyond the 9th grade, and should be soundly ignored. As anyone who watches Alton Brown (and who realizes that he's not the love child of Mr Wizard and Max Headroom) knows, cooking food _is_ chemistry, and every element below 95 is "all natural".

    I weep for the future.