Bookmark and Share February 25, 2011 - Dave Mulder

Investigating Ben & Jerry’s all-natural claim

Ben & Jerry’s brand ice cream was founded in Vermont in 1978.  Today they are massive, making delicious frozen dairy products that are distributed throughout and beyond the United States.

One of Ben & Jerry’s hallmarks is its all-natural label. Whereas many other brands cut corners with artificial flavors and coloring agents, Ben & Jerry’s prides itself in creating quality products. They don’t try to hide what’s in their ice cream: You can find ingredient listings for every flavor on their website.

Here’s what I found for Cake Batter:

Cream, Skim Milk, Water, Liquid Sugar (Sugar, Water), Sugar, Wheat Flour, Coconut Oil, Egg Yolks, Soybean Oil, Butter (Cream, Salt), Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), Chocolate Liquor, Natural Flavor, Salt, Guar Gum, Soy Lecithin, Turmeric (Color), Carrageenan

A brief survey of those ingredients doesn’t reveal any obvious red flags. At least, it has never raised any concerns with me. Though Ben & Jerry’s has some very complex flavors, they don’t cheat with any fakery.

Jim Motavalli of WalletPop recently blogged about his concern with Ben & Jerry’s natural claim.

So is this politically correct ice cream “all-natural”? The phrase has no official meaning, but as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reported last summer, “At least 48 out of 53 flavors of Ben & Jerry’s ‘All Natural’ ice cream and frozen yogurt contain alkalized cocoa, corn syrup, partially hydrogenated soybean oil or other ingredients that either don’t exist in nature or that have been chemically modified.”

Yes, that’s the same CSPI that’s currently raising a stink about caramel color. And their point is absolutely valid: Though all of Ben & Jerry’s ingredients are natural, there’s a distinction between naturally occurring and naturally sourced. Technically, high fructose corn syrup fits the definition of natural, since it begins its life as carbohydrates in corn.

Ben & Jerry’s responded to the CSPI accusation in September 2010 by defending their product and philosophy.

CSPI claimed that we mislabeled our products. We disagree. We have always labeled our products truthfully and transparently, working within the FDA’s guidelines. Even CSPI notes that the FDA could be helpful and define natural.

They could have stopped there and gone about business as usual. But Ben & Jerry’s being Ben & Jerry’s, the company decided to move away from the all-natural label.

We’re just as concerned where our ingredients come from as are our consumers. We know that people want more responsible sourcing and labeling. We agree. Companies are working harder to see how they can help more through responsible sourcing — like we are with Fair Trade certified ingredients. Therefore, Ben & Jerry’s believes it is in our best interests, and that of our consumers, to transition from an “All Natural” label on the packaging to avoid any questions We will continue to champion and emphasize the sourcing initiatives that we have undertaken including our commitments to ongoing use of dairy from family farms that pledge to not use rBGH, use of certified cage-free eggs, and the use of progressive suppliers that work for social and economic justice.

This is really cool. Rather than defend their product claim until CSPI took legal action, Ben & Jerry’s walked away from it. It’s entirely possible that no one would ever have raised issue, or have felt betrayed by the all-natural claim, but why even put customers in that position? This is exactly how companies should operate, and I applaud Ben & Jerry’s for it.

As I tell anyone who asks, the principle attribute I look for in food is naturalness. Food manufacturers who create natural products tend to value quality ingredients over their bottom line. They put more tender loving care into their food, and that effort is reflected in the taste. Natural food is delicious. I eat natural food, as local as is practical, and organic when possible. Will the revelation that a few of Ben & Jerry’s ingredients are naturally sourced instead of naturally occurring keep me from purchasing their ice cream in the future? Absolutely not, because this is a company that cares deeply about quality. So long as they stay true to those values, I won’t hold any alkali-processed cocoa against them.

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