Food and drink manufacturers will find it “virtually impossible” to label products as 100% natural in the wake of a ruling by advertising regulators.

The Advertising Standards Authority this week ruled that an advert for Müller’s Little Stars yoghurts, which claimed the product used “100% natural ingredients”, was likely to mislead consumers due to the use of gelatine and fruit concentrate in it.

The ruling, which follows a complaint first made by rival Yoplait in 2006, could mean that products ranging from Walkers’ new Red Sky crisps to 7-Up will have to abandon their claims of using entirely natural ingredients.

Other products currently using the claim include Innocent smoothies, Feel Good Drinks and Nestlé’s Milky Bar.

Yoplait marketing director Gerry Roads, who lodged the initial complaint, said it was a landmark ruling for the food and drink industry.

“It’s now virtually impossible to use the term ‘100% natural’,” he said. “With our Petit Filous we took a long hard look at using the term, but in our view it is impossible because of the regulation enforced by the Food Standards Agency’s document of 2002 [Criteria for the Use of the Terms Fresh, Pure, Natural Etc in Food Labelling].

“It says ‘100% Natural’ can only apply to products made from milk, natural yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice – in other words, nothing that has been manufactured on a large scale. In the case of Müller, it was challenged on gelatine, fruit concentrate and inulin.”

“The FSA doesn’t want anyone to use the term ‘100% natural’ and it’s right that this area is tightened up,” Roads added.

However, Müller dismissed the ASA ruling, citing a lack of expertise. “We do not support the ruling of the ASA in complex food matters and will continue to challenge their interpretation of these matters,” it claimed in a statement.

But dietician Catherine Collins welcomed the ruling, saying terms such as ‘natural’ and ‘100% natural’ could wrongly imply that products offered nutritional and health advantages.

“Such terms are meaningless when it comes to health benefits,” she said. “They can be misleading and create confusion about the nutritional significance of food products and their contribution to diet. After all, salmonella and botulism are 100% natural – but it doesn’t mean they’re healthy.”

She added: “I’d be happy if manufacturers never used the term 100% natural again. It often attracts a price premium, so consumers are spending extra money from tightened budgets on a product with no extra benefits.”

Don't say it unless you mean it
Brand owners considering using the 100% natural claim need to do their homework, claimed Feel Good Drinks founder and marketing director Steve Cooper.

“If you are entirely confident that you use 100% natural ingredients, then it is fine to say so and will continue to be so,” he said. “As far as we’re concerned, the ASA’s ruling on Müller will have no impact on Feel Good Drinks whatsoever. We are absolutely sure that we can back up the claim of having 100% natural ingredients in all our drinks.”