Why Your ‘All Natural’ Syrup Probably Isn’t

Brands are racing to keep up with consumer demand for more authentic food.

A jug of Log Cabin syrup.

Photographer: Toby Talbot/AP

Log Cabin All Natural Table Syrup has no artificial flavors or colors, nor does it contain preservatives or high-fructose corn syrup. It’s sold in a traditional jug similar to those used by many Vermont maple sugar makers, complete with a picture of a snow-covered log cabin on the label evoking the woods of the Green Mountain State.

But while Log Cabin All Natural Table Syrup may indeed be “natural” and “authentic,” as the jug suggests, it isn’t maple syrup, despite the best efforts of its marketers to suggest otherwise. (The top ingredients are brown rice syrup, water, and sugar.)

It’s just one example of a marketing trend that’s quickly transforming the nation’s grocery aisles. Consumers are clamoring for food that’s simple, less processed, and genuine. Companies are rushing to oblige them by reformulating products or labeling them in a way that evokes verdant farmland and authenticity.

In one telling sign that the trend could reach even the most unlikely comestible, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese—that electric-orange staple of the American kitchen—will be reformulated early next year to eliminate artificial preservatives and synthetic colors.

Consumers trying to sort legitimate claims from marketing baloney will continue to have their work cut out for them in 2016. There are stringent rules for organic food, which must be grown and processed without antibiotics or synthetic hormones, pesticides or fertilizer, and avoid artificial colors, dyes, and preservatives, too. But many food labels are loosely regulated by the federal government, which has provided a patchwork of guidance on food marketing terms.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has defined “gluten-free,” but not “natural.” Terms such as “local,” “humanely raised,” and “authentic” are largely left to the interpretation of food marketers. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have stepped into the void, filing hundreds of lawsuits against food manufacturers for allegedly misleading consumers with labels, particularly in their use of the term “natural.”

“I don’t think the current situation is in the public interest, since it’s so difficult to know whether the labels really mean better production practices or are just there for marketing,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University. “Caveat emptor.”

Urvashi Rangan, executive director of Consumer Reports’ food safety and sustainability center, says its surveys have found that typical consumers believe natural is comparable to organic, though the latter is defined by hundreds of pages of regulation.

“Organic is being cheated because people are looking to natural to deliver the same thing,” she says, adding that Consumer Reports is pushing for a ban on “natural” marketing on food. “There is more wrong with the natural label than what is right with it. Manufacturers can literally decide what they want it to mean.”

While sales of foods labeled organic and natural have been growing steadily for years, the latest demand is led by younger shoppers obsessed with where their food comes from and how it’s made. Their logic isn’t exactly rooted in science. Instead, says Laurie Demeritt, chief executive officer of market researcher Hartman Group, “healthy” has been redefined by consumers as “more real, less processed, and less bad stuff in it.” Under that mindset, consumers are pushing back on food products with added vitamins and minerals because they’re perceived as more processed and less authentic, she says.

The Year Ahead 2016

Oversight of food labels in the U.S. is divided between the Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat, poultry, and processed egg products, and the FDA, which oversees shell eggs and most everything else. The Agriculture Department requires prior approval of labels; the FDA doesn’t, and it “generally approaches this issue from a food safety perspective,” a spokeswoman says. Both agencies require that marketing claims be truthful and not misleading.

The FDA is revising the nutrition facts panel required on the side of packaged foods and is considering creating a uniform system to provide consumers with information on the nutritional value of different items. Similar grading systems offered by retailers and food companies have previously been criticized for designating products such as Kellogg’s Froot Loops as a healthier food choice.

Beyond that, consumers are left to figure out for themselves whether natural, free-range chicken is worth the extra money. (The USDA says natural chicken must contain no artificial ingredients or added color and be minimally processed, and free-range poultry must have access to the outdoors, though how much isn’t defined.)

Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com, says he advises consumers to ignore the marketing claims and look instead at the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel on a food’s packaging. “Going into a produce department and seeing gluten-free stickers on apples is ludicrous,” says Lempert, who observed such promotion at a local grocery. “It just becomes overwhelming to an average consumer.”

A growing number of food marketers seem to take the approach that more labels are better—even if they’re sometimes meaningless or redundant. Carol’s Cage Free Heirloom Brown Eggs, for instance, are certified humane and contain no antibiotics or hormones. But every egg brand could make that last claim, since the federal government doesn’t allow hormones to be used on poultry. A Carol’s spokesman says the company includes the label because many consumers believe hens are given hormones to produce more eggs.

Twizzlers, the twisted licorice candy produced by Hershey, are billed as a “low-fat snack,” a claim that Neil Stern, a senior partner at McMillan Doolittle, a retail consulting firm, calls ludicrous. “That’s because it’s 100 percent sugar!” he grouses. A Hershey spokesman says the label on Twizzlers, which are made from corn syrup, is useful to consumers seeking low-fat snacks.

Sometimes figuring out all the hype doesn’t seem possible, even for the pros. The packaging for Post Foods’ Great Grains Digestive Blend cereal trumpeted that the breakfast flakes support healthy digestion and include a “berry medley” with “natural flavor with other natural flavor.” But when asked to explain the latter claim, a Post spokeswoman said only that the product is being discontinued.

Few companies have embraced the labeling craze with as much enthusiasm as Annie’s Homegrown, based in Berkeley, Calif. Although it sells a variety of products, Annie’s, which General Mills bought in 2014, is perhaps best known for its macaroni and cheese. Its success may explain why Kraft is reformulating its own iconic product.

Some boxes of Annie’s mac and cheese have so many claims emblazoned on them—no artificial flavors, synthetic colors, preservatives, or GMOs—that there’s scarcely any remaining real estate. The company did find room to squeeze in a mention that the box is made from “100 percent recycled paperboard.”

Annie’s offers a wide range of mac and cheese choices, including ones billed as organic, natural, and made with whole grains. In 2014 the company introduced mac and cheese made with cheese sourced from grass-fed cows, and a few months ago it rolled out organic vegan and organic vegan gluten-free offerings. “We try to call out things we think are important to them,” says John Foraker, Annie’s CEO, who says the box has always been his company’s primary marketing platform. “We would rather overcommunicate than undercommunicate.” Given the brand’s success, consumers are likely to see a lot more overcommunication on their grocery shelves in 2016.

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