Back in 2010, Ben & Jerry's agreed to stop using the phrase "all natural" on its ice cream.
It was a weirdly prophetic sort of move. There was probably no brand on Earth that had put more effort into building a reputation as grounded, non-corporate and connected to a simpler, utopian vision. In other words, there was no other brand on the planet that was more "natural." Ben & Jerry's wasn't organic. Organic labels have a legal definition, and the ice-cream maker wasn't claiming it met that definition. Rather, Ben & Jerry's was using a term with no legal definition but which fit the company's branding.
Natural language elsewhere
Patagonia had done something similar in clothing. And Simple had done something similar in publishing. But in food, it seemed that Ben & Jerry's reputation for giving equal weight to both profit and purpose put the ice-cream company in a space of its own. Even organic food companies that adhered to the legal standards required by the use of the word organic on labels didn't feel quite so ... natural.
But starting in 2002 the Center for Science in the Public Interest began to argue that if Ben & Jerry's wanted to call something "all-natural," than it had to be composed entirely of natural things. Ben & Jerry's used hydrogenated oils in its frozen treats; and hydrogenated oils weren't natural, according to The Center.
Since the U.S. government doesn't take a stand on what is or isn't natural, things were at a standstill. The Center and Ben & Jerry's just disagreed.
But then, in 2010, Ben & Jerry's decided to stop using the phrase. The counter-culture icon seemingly had no interest in arguing that all of matter is natural, or that "natural" is a reference to approach and belief about how to make food and not about the use of organic ingredients, or that the government needs to make a ruling on which ingredients are natural.
Ben & Jerry's seemingly didn't want to fight about "all natural" at all.
Because Ben & Jerry's knew the world of food was about to change.
Lawsuits and label changes
And change it has. By 2013 it was if everyone in America (or at least everyone in California) was suing every company that used "natural" on a label. And in recent weeks an increasing number of those companies have taken the same stance that Ben & Jerry's did and decided not to fight.
- PepsiCo settled a class-action lawsuit over its use of "all natural" in descriptions of its Naked Juice drinks.
- Cargill agreed to modify the tagline of its Truvia sweetener—Nature's calorie-free sweetener—after activists filed suit.
- Barbara's—one of the early pioneers of natural and organic foods—agreed to stop using the word to describe its Puffin cereal.
- And Pepperidge Farm has reportedly stopped printing Goldfish cracker packages that use the word "natural" as lawsuits accumulate around brands that call themselves "natural" and use GMO crops.
So here's the thing
The use of the term "natural" has become a liability. And that's because food makers have used the term in an unnatural fashion. And there's simply no going back. The lawsuits will keep coming. And more and more companies will follow Ben & Jerry's lead and just give up on the term.
And by this time next year we expect that spotting a "natural" label at the supermarket may feel like a supernatural experience.
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