Buy an ‘all-natural’ product that wasn’t? Line up to get paid.

During the 1950s, the “casserole decade,” consumers wanted convenience. Americans couldn’t get enough canned goods. Food started to look less like food. Jell-O graced tables in wobbly Technicolor globs dotted with syrup-packed canned fruit. Home-cooked meals were replaced by fish sticks and TV dinners featuring frozen slabs of mystery meat.

The pendulum has swung in the opposite direction in the decades since. Nowadays, “all-natural” is all people want, from their food to their shampoo to their shoes. But as it turns out, all-natural is often anything but.

On Thursday, cereal giant Kellogg said it would drop the terms “all-natural” and “nothing artificial” from some product labels in its Kashi line as part of a $5 million class action settlement, the Associated Press reported.

Kellogg bought Kashi in 2000 — around the time the organic, all-natural trend went mainstream — from the health-conscious California couple that founded it in 1984. The product, billed as wholesome and natural, did well in health food stores and expanded to mainstream grocery stores.

By 2011, label-conscious consumers noticed Kashi products included ingredients such as pyridoxine hydrochloride, calcium pantothenate and soy oil processed with hexane, a component of gasoline.

As unnatural as they sound, such ingredients do occur naturally – wheat germ and flaxseed contain pyridoxine hydrochloride, a name for vitamin B – but Kellogg used man-made versions in Kashi products, a practice common to food companies who wish to control cost and ensure a consistent supply, according to the New York Times.

Consumers felt duped by the company’s “all-natural” claims and sued.

In a statement, Kellogg said it stands by its advertising practices, but will change its formula or labels by the end of the year to comply with the settlement.

Vibram, the maker of barefoot-running shoes, also wound up on the wrong end of a lawsuit over its efforts to capitalize on the all-natural craze.

This week the Italian rubber shoe manufacturer agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging there’s no scientific evidence behind its claims that its FiveFingers shoes encourage a more natural running stride that reduces foot injuries and strengthens muscles.

The company will pay $3.75 million in refunds — up to $94 to anyone who bought its barefoot running shoes after March 21, 2009. Vibram also has to stop making the controversial claims about its shoes until it can find scientific research to back them up.

Vibram and Kellogg join a slew of other companies sued over questionable ingredients.

This week a suit filed against Marie Callender Pie Shops alleges the company’s “all natural” baking mix contains synthetic ingredients. Last year PepsiCo agreed to remove “all natural” from the labels on Naked juices, which contain artificial ingredients, to settle a lawsuit. A 2012 lawsuit against General Mills’ claims that its Nature Valley granola bars are “natural” even though they contain synthetic sweeteners is still pending. A number of suits have been filed, with mixed success, against companies who list “evaporated cane juice” as an ingredient by plaintiffs who allege the term is an attempt to disguise sugar content.

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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