In yet more proof of how little the word "natural" means, testing of some Quaker Oats products—which advertise "100% Natural Whole Grain" front and center—found traces of the pesticide glyphosate, spurring a lawsuit on behalf of consumers in New York and California.
According to the New York Times, it's not the level of glyphosate (classified by the World Health Organization as "probably [a] carcinogen") in the oatmeal that is most upsetting to consumers: The levels of the pesticide are below the limits that the Environmental Protection Agency has set as safe for human consumption (Quaker Quick 1-Minute Oats were found to have glyphosate at a level at 1.18 parts per million—about 4% of the 30 parts per million the E.P.A. permits in cereal grains).
There is nothing unlawful about Quaker Oats’ growing and processing methods. Rather, what is "unlawful" is the misleading use of "natural"—and Quaker’s claim that their oats are something they're not in order to capitalize on growing consumer demand for healthful, natural products.
Kim Richman, the lead lawyer of the firm representing the consumers—who are seeking refunds for purchases and asking that Quaker's parent company PepsiCo disclose the glyphosate in the product or reformulate it—says the real issue is that "Quaker advertises these products as 100 percent natural, and glyphosate in any amount is not natural."
This type of lawsuit is nothing new. In an opinion piece for the Times last year called "Why 'Natural' Doesn't Mean Anything Anymore," Michael Pollan wrote that some 200 class-action suits have been filed against food manufacturers in the past few years against the misuse of the word "natural" in marketing. The F.D.A. has not defined "natural," but has said that food labeled as such should not contain anything "not normally to be expected in the food." It's safe to say that glyphosate qualifies under this very broad umbrella. (But then again: Would you want ingredients not normally found in food in any food? Even those not labeled "natural"?)
So what was Pollan's piece of advice? That the "most natural foods in the supermarket seldom bother with the word; any food product that feels compelled to tell you it’s natural in all likelihood is not."
With health and wellness more important to consumers than ever before, it's likely we'll only see more claims of "natural"—and more lawsuits fighting these claims, if faulty—in the future.
Which words on food packaging do you pay attention to? And which do you ignore?