Ben & Jerry's Artificial Ingredients: Why "Natural" Is Still the Most Meaningless Word in the Supermarket

Last Updated Aug 16, 2010 11:55 AM EDT

The Center for Science in the Public Interest's latest attack on the food industry -- a rebuke of Ben & Jerry's for using non-natural ingredients in its "all-natural" ice cream and frozen yogurt -- offers further evidence that the N word is the most overused and misleading claim in the supermarket (with "fresh" coming in as a close second.) It also demonstrates that food manufacturers seem to be suffering from a serious lack of communication between the marketing staff and the people who do product formulations.

How else to explain the fact that Ben & Jerry's, whose claims of selling a high quality, non-artificial product are so central to the company's marketing that the words "all-natural" appear as part of the logo, is making nearly all of its flavors with artificial ingredients. After undoubtedly spending countless hours combing through ice cream carton labels, CSPI staffers concluded that at least 48 out of Ben & Jerry's 53 flavors contain ingredients like alkalized cocoa, anhydrous dextrose, corn syrup and corn syrup solids.

These are not major indiscretions -- many of Ben & Jerry's ingredients are in fact simple, natural things like milk, cream, sugar and eggs -- but for a company that prides itself on authenticity, cutting corners by using cheap, artificial ingredients smacks of carelessness at best. Perhaps Ben & Jerry's, which is owned by Unilever (UL), doesn't think its customers are smart enough to realize that alkalized cocoa, anhydrous dextrose and partially hydrogenated soybean oil aren't exactly "all natural."

Hershey's (HSY) Center for Health and Nutrition draws a clear distinction between natural and alkalized cocoa. According to the center's web site, manufacturers treat cocoa with an alkalizing agent to make it less bitter and give it "dark brown and red-brown colors that add desirable appearances to some food products." Unfortunately, this processing also robs cocoa of much of its healthful, antioxidant-containing flavanol content.

Anhydrous dextrose is a sugar that's been chemically or enzymatically derived from corn starch -- not something you'd find in your kitchen or have any luck getting at the grocery store.

Rob Michalak, Ben & Jerry's director of social mission, says that the definition of what's natural is "evolving" and that Ben & Jerry's has a different -- presumably stricter -- interpretation of the term. "We've always used FDA definitions of what's natural and not natural," says Michalak.

But the problem is that the FDA has no actual definitions of natural, creating a massively gaping hole in which companies are free to come up with their own guidelines. The inevitable result is "natural" products made with highly processed ingredients.

FDA rules on this issue are long overdue. Fortunately, there are signs that the agency may tackle it as part of its label claims overhaul. Until then, the labeling chaos continues.

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