Last month, the ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s seemingly took a fall from grace. Long regarded as a progressive ice cream producer and a lover of social advocacy and jam bands (as if they had an option, they are based in Vermont), Ben & Jerry’s took a step backward and admitted that their widely consumed ice cream was not quite as natural as once advertised. Once all of their cartons read “All Natural” but those days are numbered, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest put the pressure on B&J’s last month regarding the liberal use of “all natural.” The CSPI argued that if products contain alkalized cocoa, corn syrup, hydrogenated oil or other ingredients that are anything but natural (all of which are contained in some of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavors). Ben & Jerry’s (once owned by the real folksy team of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, but now is a part of the Unilever food behemoth) agreed with the criticism, and instead of changing the recipe to earn the “all natural” title, is just dropping the bit of marketing lingo to avoid any more controversy.
Now no one really wants to pick on Ben & Jerry’s (as they remain somewhat of a favorite of the sugar-addled and those plagued with a chronic case of unyielding munchies) and their exit from the “all natural” claim was, while not entirely graceful, somewhat commendable. But this latest controversy is just a mere stumble in the longer, more injurious plunge from the ideal of natural to the more manufactured and artificial reality.
The fact is, natural food, or “all natural food” means absolutely nothing in this day and age. It is a designate that is so loose and adaptable, that just about anything can be deemed natural, including Pepsi Natural. As it turns out, food can only be labeled natural if it contains no artificial ingredients or added colors and is minimally processed, this is according to the USDA. But the natural label is neither enforced or regulated, and can be (as it is often) used without any USDA approval. And the fact that the terms, “natural flavorings” and “natural colorings” can be used when referring to additives that are anything but natural hardly instills confidence. All that is required to liberally use these terms is that one key component to the “natural” ingredient is derived from something natural, even if it has been distilled, refined or diluted countless times.
As with many labels, the “natural” label no longer has any meaning whatsoever. If anything, when I see a natural label, it makes me all the more skeptical of the product, as it more often tends to be a sign of cynical marketing than any certifiable purity. So, should we make like Ben & Jerry’s and just ditch the “natural” label once and for all? Maybe move on to something a bit more absolute, like organic (not without its problems) or Naturally Certified? Or should we fight to restore the meaning of natural, and make it adhere to a more precise definition? What do you think “natural” should mean in regards to food?