10 months after Cargill agreed to settle a class action lawsuit alleging it was misleading shoppers by marketing consumer products under the Truvia brand as ‘natural’, the firms behind rival stevia brand Pure Via have agreed to settle a similar lawsuit.
Like Truvia, Pure Via came under fire in part owing to the processing methods used to extract Reb A - the steviol glycoside they contain - but also owing to the choice of a bulking agent (in Truvia’s case: erythritol; in Pure Via’s case: dextrose and/or isomaltulose).
In her complaint, filed in California on January 28, 2014, plaintiff Angel Aguiar alleged that Merisant and its subsidiary Whole Earth Sweetener Co (which markets PureVia, Equal, and Canderel sweeteners) “advertised, and labeled PureVia as a natural sweetener primarily made from the stevia plant” when the primary ingredients were isomaltulose or dextrose and the Reb A it contained was “harshly purified through chemical processes”.
While formulators argue that in order to sell a high-intensity sweetener such as stevia as a table top product that can be substituted for sugar, you have to add a bulking agent (which will inevitably be the first ingredient on the list) and that some level of processing is necessary to extract the bits out of the stevia leaf that make it sweet, Aguiar argued that “no reasonable consumer would consider PureVia to be a natural product”.
Pure Via to amend labels but will not stop using ‘natural’ claim
In court papers filed Monday, Merisant and Whole Earth did not admit liability, but said they would pay $1.65m (much less than the $5m allocated by Cargill in the Truvia settlement - click HERE ) and revise Pure Via’s marketing and labeling to avoid the cost and uncertainty of protracted litigation.
Under the proposed settlement - which is subject to court approval - a nationwide class of consumers who purchased Pure Via in the US between 2008 and the present would be able to submit claims for $5 to $30.
The defendants have also agreed to add an asterisk on product labels noting ‘For more information about our natural standard go to purevia.com’ and update the Pure Via website to “further explain the manufacturing processes for the ingredients” in the products.
But they will not stop using the term ‘natural’ or ‘all-natural’, adding that “the injunctive relief provides consumers with significant information to make their own determination as to whether they deem Pure Via to be natural.”
Separately - although this is not stipulated in the settlement - Merisant and Whole Earth have replaced dextrose derived from corn with dextrose derived from cassava root or Non-GMO corn in order to meet the needs of consumers looking for Non-GMO options.
A reasonable consumer understands a natural product to be one that does not contain man-made, synthetic ingredients, is not subject to harsh chemical processes, and is only minimally processed
The case is one of hundreds of civil suits filed against food and beverage companies over ‘natural’ claims, and spans several aspects of the debate, including whether ingredients are inherently considered ‘natural’ or 'artificial’; whether certain extraction methods can render ‘natural’ ingredients ‘un-natural’; and whether ingredients produced with or from genetically engineered ingredients should come with a ‘natural’ label.
In her lawsuit, Aguiar said: “A reasonable consumer understands a natural product to be one that does not contain man-made, synthetic ingredients, is not subject to harsh chemical processes, and is only minimally processed.
“Defendants describe the process of obtaining stevia leaf extract as similar to making tea, but do not tell the consumer that Defendants then add ethanol, methanol, or rubbing alcohol to this so-called “tea” in a patented multi-step process to purify it.
“In short, PureVia is not made primarily from the stevia plant and contains only a minute quantity of stevia-derived Reb A (not natural crude stevia); the remaining ingredients are not natural, but synthetic or genetically modified; and, the stevia-derived Reb A is harshly purified through chemical processes."
What is natural, and who decides?
To probe deeper into what consumers consider to be ‘natural’; whether ‘all-natural’ claims are too risky in light of the recent wave of lawsuits, and whether there are better ways to communicate 'naturalness' without using the word 'natural', we are holding a live online forum on September 30.
The FoodNavigator-USA Natural & Clean Label Trends Forum features an expert panel of speakers from the CEOs of two innovative food brands showing explosive growth: Phil Anson (EVOL Foods -pictured left) and Nicole Dawes (Late July snacks - pictured right); the CSPI's director of litigation Stephen Gardner and Montgomery McCracken attorney Kristen Polovoy; and the CEO of the Natural Products Association, Dr Dan Fabricant.
Click HERE to register for free.