I confess that I have a weakness for potato chips. Admit it: you do too.  I don’t know about you, but I also confess that I don’t pay a lot of attention to claims like “natural” when it comes to potato chips because, hey, it’s a snack food.  When I’m thinking healthy, I’m thinking about the other parts of my diet.  (Since I’m a Brooklyn resident, I think a lot about kale.)  Apparently, though, when others see the word “natural,” even on a bag of potato chips, their BS detection meters are running.

And, so, UTZ joins the ever-growing ranks of companies sued for claiming that its products are “natural.”  In 2014, a would-be class action was filed in the district court of Massachusetts, asserting that Utz’s advertising materials and labels claiming that its products were “all natural,” or just “natural,” were false because the defendants’ products “contain ingredients that are chemically derived, heavily processed, synthetic, and/or artificial, and/or made from ingredients containing and/or derived from Genetically Modified Organisms.”

Although denying liability or wrongdoing, to settle the case, UTZ agreed to cease use of the term “natural” or “all natural” on Utz and Bachman Snacks products. (The settlement treats the two claims as basically the same, which is itself noteworthy.)  It also agreed to pay $1,250,000 to the class members.  The settlement agreement also provides, however, that nothing in this Agreement “shall be construed as preventing Utz from advertising and/or labeling its products that do not contain GMO, Synthetic Ingredients, artificial ingredients, and artificial flavors as “Natural” or “All Natural,” which means that Utz could potentially use such terms in the future if it changes its (admittedly delicious) snack recipes.  

It is worth noting, however, that “Synthetic Ingredient” is defined very broadly in the settlement agreement as “an ingredient that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical (or biochemical) process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral sources, including but not limited to the following allegedly synthetic ingredients identified in Plaintiffs’ Second Amended Complaint: Beta Carotene, Canola Oil, Caramel Color, Citric Acid, Corn Flour, Corn Oil, Corn Syrup, Cottonseed Oil, Dextrose, Distilled Vinegar, Malic Acid, Maltodextrin, Modified Food Starch, Oleoresin Paprika Extract, Paprika Extract, Potassium Chloride, Safflower Oil, Soy Lecithin, Soybean Oil, Sunflower Oil, Toasted Corn Germ, White Corn, Whole Grain, and Yellow Corn.”  So a recipe change that allows for the use of “natural” could be a significant one indeed. 

In the meantime, will removing “natural” from Utz’s labels and advertising affect the popularity of its products?  Only time will tell.

And will the FDA eventually decide what “natural” means?  Who knows?  In the meantime, marketers touting that their products are “natural” should do so with their eyes wide open.  The class action bar is watching closely.  (For some of our many previous posts about “natural,” start here, here, and here)