Wesson corn oilCross-posted from Food Safety News.

If you use Wesson brand cooking oils, you may be able to join a class-action lawsuit against food giant ConAgra for deceptively marketing the products as natural.

These days it’s hard to walk down a supermarket aisle without bumping into a food product that claims to be “all-natural.” If you’ve ever wondered how even some junk food products can claim this moniker (witness: Cheetos Natural Puff White Cheddar Cheese Flavored Snacks — doesn’t that sound like it came straight from your garden?), the answer is simple, if illogical: The Food and Drug Administration has not defined the term “natural.”

So food marketers, knowing that many shoppers are increasingly concerned about healthful eating, figured: Why not just slap the natural label on anything we can get away with? That wishful thinking may soon be coming to an end if a few clever consumer lawyers have anything to say about it.

While various lawsuits have been filed in recent years claiming that food companies using the term “natural” are engaging in deceptive marketing, a suit filed in June in California against ConAgra could make the entire industrial food complex shake in its boots. 

The plaintiff claims he relied on Wesson oils’ “100 percent natural” label, when the products are actually made from genetically modified organisms. 

GMOs not exactly natural, so says Monsanto

Ironically, the complaint cites a definition of GMOs by none other than Monsanto, the company most notorious for its promotion of the technology. According to Monsanto, GMOs are: “Plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs.” 

The complaint also quotes a GMO definition from the World Health Organization: “Organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.”

Four Wesson varieties are implicated in the case: their canola oil, vegetable oil, corn oil, and “best blend.” And it’s not just on the label that ConAgra is using the natural claim, but also online and in print advertisements. (Additional silly health claims on the website include “cholesterol free” — vegetable oils couldn’t possibly contain cholesterol anyway.)

The complaint describes the extent of ConAgra’s deception, alleging that the “labels are intended to evoke a natural, wholesome product.” And further:

The “100 percent Natural” statement is, like much of the label on Wesson Oils, displayed in vibrant green. The “Wesson” name is haloed by the image of the sun, and the canola oil features a picture of a green heart. 

A green heart — you just can’t get any healthier than that. However, as registered dietitian Andy Bellatti told me: “These oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which, in excessive amounts, are actually bad for your heart.” Guess they left that part out of the green heart icon. 

Supermarkets chock-full of GMOs

But what makes this lawsuit especially intriguing is its potentially far-ranging impact. According to the Center for Food Safety: “Upwards of 70 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves — from soda to soup, crackers to condiments — contain genetically-engineered ingredients.” While it’s unclear how many of these products also claim to be natural, given all the greenwashing going on these days, it’s likely to number in the thousands. 

Specifically, up to 85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered, as are 91 percent of soybeans, both extremely common ingredients in processed foods. Numerous groups, including the Center for Food Safety, have been calling attention to the potential hazards of GMOs for years. From their website:

A number of studies over the past decade have revealed that genetically engineered foods can pose serious risks to humans, domesticated animals, wildlife, and the environment. Human health effects can include higher risks of toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, immune-suppression, and cancer. 

Not exactly the stuff that green hearts are made of. The legal complaint also notes that on its corporate website (“but not on the Wesson site that consumers are more likely to visit”), ConAgra implies that its oils are genetically engineered. The company concludes: “Ultimately, consumers will decide what is acceptable in the marketplace based on the best science and public information available.” 

But by being told the oils are “100 percent natural,” consumers can no longer make an informed decision, as they are being misled. 

Which reminds me of a great quote from Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser: “If they have to put the word ‘natural’ on a box to convince you, it probably isn’t.”