By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010; 6:40 PM
Alkalized cocoa, corn syrup and artificial vanilla. They're safe to eat, but are they natural?
On Monday, Ben & Jerry's, the Vermont ice cream brand that is synonymous with funky flavors and environmentally and socially responsible behavior, agreed to phase out its use of the term "All Natural" for ice creams and frozen yogurts that contain processed or artificial ingredients.
The move comes a month after a Washington-based public health watchdog, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, sent a letter to Unilever, the parent company of Ben & Jerry's. The letter identified nearly 50 products that it said were improperly labeled: Thirty-six flavors including Cherry Garcia, a celebrated mix of fudge and cherries named for the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, contained cocoa processed with alkali, which cuts acidity, and nutrition-boosting flavanols. Others, such as the Creme Brulee flavor, included maltodextrin, a sweetener produced from cornstarch, and corn syrup.
"We are confident that Ben & Jerry's products are 'All Natural' as reasonable consumers would understand that term. However we don't want there to be any questions," Jostein Solheim, the company's chief executive, wrote in a letter to the watchdog group. He added that the company intended to focus on communicating its core values such as buying milk from family farms that do not use growth hormones and using certified cage-free eggs.
Technically, Ben & Jerry's is not prohibited from using the term all-natural. The Food and Drug Administration does not have a definition for the term. Siobhan DeLancey, an FDA spokeswoman, said the agency does not object to the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.
Many consumers, however, might believe that the term is regulated. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat and poultry, does have a standard. Products can be labeled "natural" only if they are free of artificial colors or ingredients, or "minimally processed," by which the agency means a process that does not fundamentally alter the raw ingredient.
"Ben & Jerry's is doing the right thing by taking the phrase 'all natural' off its labels if the products have factory-made ingredients," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The Food and Drug Administration could do consumers and food manufacturers a great service by actually defining when the word 'natural' can and cannot be used to characterize a given ingredient."