A story that may have passed under the radar of many of us in the UK last month was that of multinational giant Unilever – owner of Hellman’s – issuing legal proceedings against a small US company of egg-free ‘mayo’ on the basis that it was misleading to customers – who they claimed expect any product to be called ‘mayo’ to have egg in it.
One month on, and following a wave of support for the small free-from supplier, Unliver has just announced that it is dropping the case.
It’s not the only such story. Closer to home, Oatly is being sued by the Swedish Dairy Association for making milk seem ‘unmodern’. As Natural Products Magazine reported recently, one of Oatly’s catchphrases ‘No milk. No soy. No. Badness’ has ‘irked’ the Swedish dairy industry.
I’m in two minds about all this. One the one hand, we can disapprove of large companies slapping smaller companies with legal action they’re unlikely to be able to afford. But on the other, should we defend free-from food companies when they deploy arguably questionable marketing tactics?
Is it misleading for Hampton Creek – the company behind the vegan ‘mayo’ – to use an image of a plant growing within an egg as their logo (right)? Or is it the perfect representation of what their product is? Is it wrong of Oatly to link milk (and, for that matter, soya) to ‘badness’? Or are they merely just trying to convey their dairy-free, soy-free and natural-ingredient-only status?
It’s a tough one. I’ll confess to being a big fan of Oatly, but I’m not keen on free-from companies dissing – explicitly, subtly, or otherwise – non-free from foods, or the non-free from food industry as a whole.
There are many examples of this. The small company Designed2Eat claim to only sell food ‘our bodies are designed to eat’ – which they say is vegan, GF and paleo food. Setting aside the argument that we were not ‘designed’, but that we evolved, and that we adapted (mostly) perfectly well to consuming a grain and milk containing diet – and actually thrived to the extent we now routinely live to 100 and number 7 billion, whereas in the good old paleo days we’d be lucky to live to 40 and there were not more than 1 million – the unavoidable implication from this is that all grains, dairy and sugar are not suitable for our bodies. This is effectively repeated by The Primal Pantry – whose bars I enjoy, I might add – who claim to only use ingredients “you were born to eat” – even though human breastmilk doesn’t appear to be among them.
I don’t want to pick on small brands who are doing something different and who I want to succeed, but I’ve seen enough claims of using only ‘clean ingredients’ with ‘no baddies’ and how non-free from ingredients are toxic or inflammatory or unnatural to come to the view, in light of the two legal cases above, that many free-from startups may need to take more care with what claims they make in future. There may be safety in numbers, but pushing the envelope a little further each time in order to try to make a name for yourself in the competitive world of free from could land a brand in unwanted hot water – and nobody wants to see that.
Some of you may know I work on the FreeFrom Skincare Awards – a sibling award to the longer-established FreeFrom Food Awards – and common among smaller producers of natural cosmetics is the generic and questionable ‘free from nasty chemicals’ claim, something we aren’t keen on, and which parts of the high street cosmetics industry are none too pleased about either, with some arguing that certain ‘free from’ claims need to be more tightly regulated or even banned. What we, as organisers, often call for is for criticism of non-natural skincare to be kept at bay: the focus should be on what is good about the products, as I argued in this blog about a scaremonger-y case not long ago.
While I have issues with paleo food being called paleo, inescapable is the fact it uses great ingredients which have lots of health benefits – such as coconuts, nuts, fruit and so on. Let’s hear about that – the good stuff that’s used, not the ‘bad’ stuff that isn’t – and let’s not try to mislead. It’s free from gluten and milk – not free from nasty gluten and bad milk. Fact not opinion. Otherwise what results in confusion among consumers – and in extreme cases, possibly even legal action.