By Steve Gardner
Consumers can breathe, or at least eat, a little easier. This past week two major food companies stopped a deceptive practice — claiming that their drinks were “natural” when they were sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Both companies acted after legal action by the DC-based nutrition and health advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). I’m Litigation Director for CSPI.
On Monday, January 8, CSPI sued Kraft Foods for claiming that Capri Sun drinks were “natural,” when in fact HFCS was the second ingredient after water. The company immediately announced that it was completely getting rid of the “natural” claim. The same day, Kraft announced that it was getting rid of the “natural” claim.
Then, on Friday, January 12, Cadbury Schweppes announced that it, too, would stop calling HFCS-filled 7UP “all natural.” This announcement culminated several months of negotiations between Cadbury and CSPI.
It may sound as though HFCS comes from corn in the same way sugar comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. Not so. HFCS is created by a complex industrial process performed in refineries using centrifuges, hydroclones, ion-exchange columns, backed-bed reactors, and other high-tech equipment. Starch is extracted from corn and then converted by acids or enzymes to glucose. Then, some of the glucose is further converted by enzymes into fructose. HFCS has only been widely used in food since the 1980s.
The fact that chemical bonds are broken and rearranged in their production disqualifies them from being called “natural.” For instance, although a scientist might be able to produce sugar by rearranging the molecules of any number of things that contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, the result would not be “natural” sugar.
As a result, consumers who want to buy “natural” foods can do so with more confidence. This is a great example of the power of public interest litigation. CSPI’s Litigation Project was launched in 2004, because the FTC and the FDA have abandoned their responsibilities to protect the public from deceptive marketing. In that short time, it has negotiated with or sued many food companies for a variety of deceptive or unfair practices, everything from stopping deceptive claims that a product has fruit in it to forcing KFC to get rid of trans fat to persuading the soft drink companies to remove regular soft drinks from schools.
Without the consumer pressure at work here, these companies would have merrily rolled along, deceiving consumers and hurting other companies that chose to sell their products honestly.
If you know about a deceptive or harmful practice involving food or other nutrition issues, please contact me. We are always watching for the next big food fight.