Are foods and beverages labeled "all natural" disappearing from supermarket shelves?

According to a story from The Wall Street Journal, food and beverage manufacturers are ditching the "natural" language, in part due to the seemingly never-ending class action lawsuits challenging the claims as deceptive advertising.

The article cites examples like "All Natural" Goldfish, "All Natural" Naked juice, and "All Naked" Puffins cereal all removing the "all natural" language. Although products labeled "natural" made more than $40 billion in retail sales over the last 12 months, the article estimated that at least 100 lawsuits have been filed over the last two years over "natural" advertising, including suits against Ben & Jerry'sConAgra, and Kashi.

Some cases have been dismissed, but others have reached multimillion-dollar settlements. The maker of Puffins cereal, for example, agreed this summer to pay $4 million to settle a suit.  It also changed its logo from "All Natural Since 1971" to "Since 1971."

"There's a boatload of litigation and that is going to continue until companies stop conning people," Stephen Gardner, litigation director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told TheWSJ. Gardner's organization has been involved in multiple cases challenging "all natural" advertising claims.

Another obstacle for the food industry: a lack of guidance from the Food and Drug Administration. The agency has not issued a definition of "natural." Instead, the FDA follows a "long-standing policy," a spokesperson told TheWSJ, considering "natural" to mean that "nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food."

The volume of litigation coupled with the lack of guidance from the FDA has led companies to drop the terminology. In 2009, 30.4 percent of food products and 45.5 percent of beverage products claimed to be "all natural." By the first half of 2013, those numbers had dropped to 22.1 percent for food and 34 percent for beverages.

Why it matters: Considering the high numbers of class action lawsuits challenging "all natural" claims, along with the volume of litigation, the cost to defend the suits, a lack of guidance from the FDA, and the multimillion-dollar payout in some cases, a food and beverage manufacturer's should proceed very cautiously should it decide to make or continue making an "all natural" claim.