Most "All Natural" Ben & Jerry's Flavors Have Unnatural Ingredients

Alkalized Cocoa, Hydrogenated Oil, Fake Vanilla Among Them, Says CSPI


WASHINGTON—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. Calling products with unnatural ingredients “natural” is a false and misleading use of the term, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Today, CSPI urged Ben and Jerry’s to drop the claim or else the nonprofit watchdog group will take its concerns to the Food and Drug Administration and state attorneys general.

Founded in 1978 by Vermonters Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry’s is now a unit of the Anglo-Dutch consumer product conglomerate Unilever, which besides owning familiar food brands such as Hellman’s and Lipton, also makes Vaseline, Dove soap, and Axe deodorant. Thanks to the ice cream company’s concerns about the environment, the company has garnered consumer trust and a reputation for social responsibility—but that image risks being sullied by the allegations of misleading labeling.

The label claims the ice cream is all natural, but it contains cocoa processed with alkali, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and corn syrup.

In 2002, CSPI alerted the FDA and the company to Ben & Jerry’s deceptive use of the “All Natural” claim, but neither took action, and the problem seems to have only gotten worse, according to CSPI. The consumer group says that the deceptive labeling is as unfair to competitors as it is to consumers.

For instance, “All Natural” Chubby Hubby ice cream contains three non-natural ingredients: alkalized cocoa, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and corn syrup. Dublin Mudslide contains alkalized cocoa and anhydrous dextrose. A list of all the improperly labeled flavors and their ingredients is included in CSPI’s letter.

“These ingredients are safe—only a small amount of partially hydrogenated oil is used—but it’s a stretch to call any of them ‘natural,’” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “Ben & Jerry’s sylvan labels notwithstanding, these ingredients come from the factory, not the farm. And slapping an ‘all natural’ label on the products certainly implies that the products are top quality and deserve to fetch a higher price.”

Cocoa processed with alkali is the most frequently used unnatural ingredient as it used in 36 Ben & Jerry’s flavors. Treating cocoa with an alkalizing agent changes the chemical structure, taste, and appearance of cocoa and reduces its acidity and flavonol content. Flavonols are antioxidants with possible health benefits. Indeed, Unilever itself recently sponsored research to investigate an association between flavonol intake and the incidence of stroke. In addition, the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition (part of the candy company) specifically distinguishes alkalized cocoa powder from natural cocoa powder. Corn syrup and corn syrup solids are created by chemically or enzymatically converting cornstarch into sugar and short chains of sugar molecules. They occur in 28 flavors. Other artificial ingredients in Ben & Jerry’s frozen desserts include dextrose and maltodextrin (both are chemically or enzymatically converted from cornstarch) and vanillin (a synthetic vanilla flavor).

Although the FDA does not have a formal definition of the word natural, the agency’s acting director of regulatory guidance explained in a letter that the agency has “consistently discouraged the use” of the term “because its meaning is ambiguous and may unjustifiably imply to consumers that foods labeled as ‘natural’ are inherently superior to other foods…” Later, the agency wrote that the term natural means “that nothing artificial or synthetic … has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected in the food.”

In any event, emphasized CSPI, the biggest problem with Ben & Jerry’s ice creams is saturated fat—a major promoter of heart disease. A one-scoop (half-cup) serving of a typical flavor has about half-a-day’s worth of saturated fat. 

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