- Monster Beverage recently settled a class-action lawsuit that alleged that some of its products were labeled as "natural" despite use of synthetic or artificial ingredients and/or added colors, according to Seeking Alpha.
- The company settled to avoid additional expenses and interference with its business operation from further litigation, but denies all claims and liability.
- Monster will compensate customers with a cash reimbursement if they purchased Hansen's Natural Juices, Hansen’s Smoothie Nectars, Hubert's Lemonades or Hubert's Half & Half Lemonade Teas in the state of California between June 19, 2010, and June 12, 2015.
In the face of a recent tidal wave of class action lawsuits, this settlement by California-based Monster Beverage is an indication that sentiments around the word "natural" are changing. Over the years, dozens of lawsuits have been brought against companies arguing the misuse of the extremely loosely defined word, but rarely are they settled at the expense of the manufacturer.
In 2014, General Mills settled a lawsuit over the use of the phrase "all-natural" on some of its Nature Valley products. The agreement prevents the company from describing products that contain high fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin as "natural." Last year, a judge dismissed a lawsuit against Nature Valley's "natural" claim saying that it is "not plausible."
This new ruling against Monster from the Superior Court of California sends a different message — one that may actually have teeth.
Consumers have already demanded a tighter definition of what "natural" encompasses. They seem to have a good idea of what the word means and expressed their views when the FDA took steps to define "natural" in 2015 and 2016, opening up a comment period for people to write whether they thought the term should be defined at all, how they believed it should be crafted and whether it was appropriate to use on food and beverage labels. However, after the comment period closed last May, nothing happened.
Even though the FDA has not taken an official stance on the definition, according to a trend insight report from flavor manufacturer FONA International, new product launches making "all-natural claims" have fallen by 51% during the past five years, reflecting a growing level of consumer skepticism. Coupled with a study last year from Response Media, which found that nine out of 10 respondents wanted transparency in product ingredients and sources, along with more in-depth information, it may be in food manufacturers' best interest to avoid using the word in their packaging altogether.
This lawsuit can be seen as yet another symptom of the growing consumer demand for transparency from manufacturers of foods and beverages about how their products are made, but it also may not be enough to push the government to come in from the regulatory side. Despite an overarching push toward accountability on labels, there is a backlog of other pending laws and definitions at the FDA, including redefining "healthy," revamping the Nutrition Facts label, placing calorie counts on menus at restaurants and grocery store foodservice areas and rolling out new portions of Food Safety Modernization Act. As such, it may be awhile before a solidified definition of the term "natural" is decided upon.
Still, manufacturers may not want to wait until the FDA recognizes a single meaning for the term. In the court of public opinion, the tide has already changed, and they could consider less objectionable terminology on their packaging.