Au Naturel

29 04 2012

We live in a consumer world in which there is great confusion. Words and phrases are often just marketingspeak. Occasionally the FDA will weigh in and demand that some of these words and phrases conform to established meanings, measures, etc. But until there is mass consumer confusion, the FDA tends to shy away from such interventions.

Like with the word “natural.” What the heck does this mean? Does it mean organic? Does it mean that the food has not been genetically modified? What? You tell me.

Because for all intents and purposes, it could just as easily have dirt in it. Dirt is pretty natural, you know. Just ask the folks at Kellogg’s, owner of the Kashi brand of “healthy” products, and you’ll see the trouble the word “natural” can cause.

Kellogg’s contends that “natural” means it is minimally processed and free of all artificial ingredients.” This alone will get you into Whole Foods. Some consumers, though, reply that it also means “organic” and not genetically modified. Same word, different interpretations. And no arbitrator to settle the score. Enter social media.

It all started when a Rhode Island grocer pulled the product from its shelves, arguing that Kellogg was being less than transparent in its packaging claims. A photograph went viral, and, well…you know the rest. Facebook pages are now littered with the detritus of consumer angst.

Here’s the problem: Kellogg did nothing wrong. Technically, that is. The word is not regulated, and so whatever the marketer wants “natural” to mean, that’s what it means. I bet Starbucks thought the same thing when they used crushed beetles for food coloring a few weeks ago. In fact, I know they did.

But in spite of the fact that I am a never-say-die free market capitalist, I do think that companies must live by a higher standard, and standard that lives by full disclosure. In other words, the sin of omission can be just as bad as one of commission. There was no lying involved…just failure to communicate everything. And it doesn’t take market researchers with the intelligence of rocket scientists to figure out that the word “natural” is one of the most misunderstood words on the shelf.

Which, from my side of the street, does not give a company permission to exploit it.

Sure, there is much to be said for consumer responsibility, which means that we bear the burden of knowing anything and everything that may be relevant to our lives. And far be it from me to even hint at wanting a nanny state in which we are protected not only from companies, but from each other. That would be a terrible place to live.

I just think that a company as big as Kellogg would find hiding behind the stained cloak of all-natural to be a little beneath its dignity. I’d like a bowl of honesty in the morning, with a healthy sprinkling of full disclosure for taste.

Dr “And A Cup Of Organic Soy Milk, Please” Gerlich


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