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What Counts As Natural In Food And Drink? More Stuff Than You Might Think

As Naked Juice has been forced to stop calling itself "all natural," it’s clear that even the government has very little idea what that means.

Maybe they should call it "almost Naked." Because according to a recent lawsuit (and settlement) it’s not completely naked. Not unless you like your nakedness with fructooligosaccharides, Fibersol-2, inulin, and genetically modified soy.

Many us have picked up a bottle of Naked Juice thinking we were getting goodness. The bottle promises it: "all natural fruits," "all natural well being," "only the freshest, purest stuff in the world." And so on. But that’s not all you get. It turns out the definition of "natural" is as flexible as a biopolymer.

Naked Juice, which is owned by PepsiCo, recently agreed to settle a lawsuit claiming it had misrepresented its products. The complaint argues that Naked "intentionally duped consumers into believing the drinks were GMO-free"; gave the impression vitamins and nutrients were the result of fruits and juices, not "added synthetic compounds"; and:

.. misled consumers into believ[ing] that some of the beverages’ fiber content is due to the 'all natural,' '100% juice,' rather than the latest advances in synthetic fibers such as Fibersol-2 (a proprietary synthetic digestion-resistant fiber produced by Archer Daniels Midland and developed by a Japanese chemical company).

PepsiCo denied the allegations. But, as part of a $9 million settlement, it agreed to take away the "all-natural" wording, pending a review by the F.D.A. It also agreed to back up its no-GMO statement with more testing, suggesting the amounts involved may be insignificant.

There have been plenty of "natural" lawsuits recently. Last year, two California mothers sued General Mills over its Nature Valley line, which contains high-maltose corn syrup and a thickener called maltodextrin. Other plaintiffs have brought cases against Kashi, Mission Foods, and Frito-Lay.

Whether the F.D.A. brings any clarity is an open question. Its current position is quite unhelpful. It says it is "difficult to define a food product that is 'natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the Earth." It then adds that the "agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances."

One judge, discussing the Mission case, said the "regulatory landscape" had a "gaping hole" in it. But it may be the hole can’t be filled. The term is just too broad, meaning whatever you want it to mean. One man’s relatively healthful snack is another’s adulterated junk.