Lawsuit Argues Tostitos, SunChips Aren’t ‘All Natural’

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) – A California woman has brought a class-action lawsuit against PepsiCo’s (Stock Quote: PEP) Frito-Lay division, alleging that the company is falsely claiming that its Tostitos and SunChips products have been falsely labeled as “all natural.”

A glance at the nutrition information on the back of a bag of Tostitos doesn’t turn up any sign of artificial ingredients, with only potatoes, vegetable oil and salt listed.  And the Frito-Lay website emphasizes the all-natural nature of its snacks, noting that they “don’t contain any artificial flavors or artificial preservatives, nor do they use monosodium glutamate (MSG) or partially hydrogenated oil.”

But the plaintiff in this case, Julie Gengo, isn’t concerned about artificial flavoring or preservatives in this case. Rather, she contends that the company’s use of genetically modified corn and vegetable oils means that the “all-natural” label doesn’t apply.

“The reasonable consumer assumes that seeds created by swapping genetic material across species to exhibit traits not naturally theirs are not ‘all natural,’” reads the complaint. “Tostitos’s and SunChips’s advertising is very likely to deceive consumers, and has deceived the Plaintiff.”

While it may be true on some level that food made out of genetically modified crops is not “natural,” she may face an uphill battle. The Food and Drug Administration defines “all natural” products as those that are “minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives; artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and other artificial additives; growth hormones; antibiotics; hydrogenated oils; stabilizers; and emulsifiers.” No mention is made of genetically modified foods being a disqualifying factor.

If it were, that may very well spell the end of the “all natural” label. About 85% of corn and canola produced in the U.S. is genetically modified, so under the stricter definition that the lawsuit seeks, a truly “natural” food product would be hard to come by. Given the ubiquity of such foods in this country, the plaintiff may have a hard time arguing that the company was hiding something by not revealing the presence of genetically modified foods.

At the same time, though, actual awareness of genetically modified foods is fairly low in this country. Labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients is not mandatory in the U.S., and a 2006 Pew survey found that most Americans had a very limited awareness of the issue. If nothing else, perhaps this lawsuit will make people more aware of where the food on their plate is coming from.

Matt Brownell is a staff reporter for MainStreet. You can reach him by email at matthew.brownell@thestreet.com, or follow him on Twitter @Brownellorama.

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