Sunday, August 15, 2010

All Natural Liars

Vermont is home to a lot of great entrepreneurs, particularly food entrepreneurs. Perhaps it is the inspiring natural environment, or the quality of life, or even the disproportionate amount of smart folks with Yankee (often acquired) ingenuity, but some really great and original products have come out of this tiny state.

No food company has been more visibly the “face” of Vermont than Ben&Jerry’s. Ben&Jerry’s story is now legendary—childhood friends move to Vermont, build a premium brand ice cream empire on original flavors, funky names, and a commitment to social conscience. And then the rest of the story unfolds. The company is bought by Unilever (which also owns brands like Dove, Lipton, Axe deodorant, and Hellman’s) in 2000. The sellout path is not an unusual one for a number of other original Vermont food companies like Green Mountain Gringo, Putney Pasta, Annie’s Naturals, and most recently Magic Hat Brewing Company. Most conglomerates (usually public,), and venture capital- backed companies are motivated by money and increasing shareholder value. Making the world better for customers and/or celiac sufferers is typically way down on their list of priorities.

When we started out in business, we modeled a lot of our core values on Ben&Jerry’s sense of social and product mission. From their website:

Product Mission: To make, distribute, and sell the finest quality all natural ice cream and euphoric concoctions with a continued commitment to incorporating wholesome, natural ingredients and promoting business practices that respect the Earth and the Environment.

So, it was quite a shock to read the most recent report from the Center for Science in the Public interest ( publicly calling on Ben&Jerry’s to drop their prominent “All Natural” claim from their label. It turns out that 48 of their 53 flavors contain substances not found in nature at all. While acknowledging that the ingredients they used were certainly safe, the CSIP stated that “these ingredients come from the factory, not a farm.” Good line, I’d say. In particular, the CSIP took issue with Dutch processed cocoa (processed being the operative word here), partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and corn syrup being listed as natural ingredients. On top of all that, the CSIP first alerted the company and the FDA in 2002 to “the deceptive use of the ‘all natural” claim.”

Which begs the question: Who is monitoring food labeling, anyway? I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen some questionable labels. For example, I once saw a company advertise that its crusts were lightly dusted with cornmeal, yet corn was no where to be found in the ingredients (I’m sensitive to corn, and always look for it on labels.) The proliferation of engineered GF flours, enzymes, and miracle formulations that are hidden behind a “clean label” are troubling as well. What constitutes “clean” and how is “natural” defined? Can we trust companies to label products honestly? I’m not so sure.

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