Ben & Jerry's Drops "All Natural" From Its Sorta Natural Ice Cream

Last Updated Oct 16, 2010 4:03 PM EDT

After eight years of ignoring criticism that its "all natural" ice cream and frozen yogurts contain some artificial ingredients, Ben & Jerry's (UN) has wisely decided to drop the natural claim from its labels and marketing. It's another victory for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the group that led the charge against Ben & Jerry's, and it illustrates how food marketers should think twice before dismissing the watchdog group's criticisms.

Unfortunately, that's exactly what Ben & Jerry's did the first time around. In 2002, when CSPI went after Ben & Jerry's for including thing like alkalized cocoa, anhydrous dextrose, corn syrup and corn syrup solids in its products, the Unilever-owned company thumbed its nose at what it considered to be such a petty complaint. In a brief press release, Ben & Jerry's reduced the issue to a dust-up over a few of "the chunks and swirls in our ice cream."

Nonetheless, the folksy, Vermont company pledged action:

To that end, we are talking with some of the nation's most respected natural foods organizations. We have asked them to assist us in exploring these concerns. If the questions that CSPI has raised are valid, we will fix them.
Ben & Jerry's apparently concluded that CSPI's concerns were, in fact, not valid because nothing was changed, except the removal of "all natural" from Heath Bar Crunch flavors. Last week, however, Ben & Jerry's changed its tune. In a September 21st letter to CSPI, CEO Jostein Solheim wrote:
We don't want there to be any questions about our "All Natural" claims....Also, we don't believe that "All Natural" claims are the best way to convey Ben & Jerry's current core values.
CSPI may be the cranky food police, but they know how to pick fights. They're smart, have an infallible knowledge of food regulation, are well acquainted with the intricacies of food science and employ people who don't mind spending their days combing supermarket aisles looking for transgressions.

In 2006, the group got Kellogg (K) to agree to nutrition standards for products marketed to kids under 12. A year earlier they were instrumental in getting Coke (KO), Pepsi (PEP) and their bottlers to stop selling most sugary drinks in schools. They also helped kill the fake fat Olestra, played a key role in raising awareness about the dangers of trans fat and got then-owner Cadbury Schwepps to stop calling 7UP natural. And so on.

The Ben & Jerry's mea culpa also offers further evidence of how badly the FDA needs to define the term natural. Without a clear cut definition, it's hard for food companies to navigate their use of this immensely popular term. It's gotten so bad that the federal judge in a Snapple lawsuit has asked the FDA to weigh in specifically on whether high fructose corn syrup (or the substance formerly known as high fructose corn syrup) is natural.

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