It was back in 2002 that we first noticed the factory-made ingredients in Ben & Jerry's purportedly All Natural ice cream. In a complaint to the Food and Drug Administration, we pointed out that hydrogenated oils, corn syrup, and alkalized cocoa powder are clearly not natural. Neither the FDA nor Ben & Jerry's gave the matter much more consideration. The FDA blandly replied that policing "natural" claims wasn't among its other, unspecified enforcement priorities. And Ben & Jerry's kept on passing off ingredients like anhydrous dextrose and maltodextrin as gifts from nature.
It's worth noting that those ingredients, even if not natural, are safe in the amounts they are used. (That's even true for partially hydrogenated oil, only a tiny bit of which is in Chunky Monkey.) On the other hand, plenty of "all natural" things are not safe for consumption. Salmonella is perfectly natural though you wouldn't want it in ice cream. The real health problem with Ben & Jerry's ice cream is the (natural) cream, which is high in saturated fat and promotes heart disease. Eat too much ice cream and other foods that are high in saturated fat year after year and you could have a heart attack--quite naturally.
The real fuss over "all natural" isn't about nutrition, or food safety, it's about money. It's one of the catch phrases that food marketers love because it allows products thusly labeled to sell better or fetch a slightly higher price. And that's why this was a particular problem for Ben & Jerry's. It's a company that loves wearing its hippie halo. Consumers likely have higher expectations of the claims on Ben & Jerry's labels than they would for, say, Breyer's labels. (Even though both are owned by the giant Unilever corporation.)
So last July, when I was strolling down a supermarket aisle and saw "All Natural" Ben & Jerry's ice creams, brimming with artificial ingredients, I decided to see if we could prevail on the company to change its practice. Perhaps because it was wary of bad publicity, or wary of new interest in enforcing the law at FDA and the Federal Trade Commission, the company agreed to drop the natural claims from all of Ben & Jerry's products--even ones that truly are natural.
I'm glad that Unilever made the right call, but labeling disputes like this one shouldn't have to be fought on a company-by-company basis, like a game of Whac-a-Mole. The FDA should devise a reasonable definition for which ingredients can and which can't be called "natural" and make all companies play by those rules. It won't make your Phish Food or Cherry Garcia any worse or better for you, but it would make the supermarket a more honest place.