Cereal Crimes: How “Natural” Claims Deceive Consumers and Undermine the Organic Label—A Look Down the Cereal and Granola Aisle
Companies marketing “natural” products merely pay lip service to sustainability and eco- friendliness, while undercutting truly committed organic companies.
The term “natural,” in many instances, constitutes meaningless marketing hype promoted by corporate interests seeking to cash in on the consumer’s desire for food produced in a genuinely healthy and sustainable manner. Children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides and other inputs that are commonly used in “natural” products but prohibited in organics.
Federal law requires that organic food products be produced in ways that promote ecological sustainability, without the toxic inputs and genetically engineered ingredients that are common in the conventional food system. Increasingly, these organic products are forced to compete with products that claim to be “natural.” No legal requirements or restrictions exist for foods labeled “natural.” The term, in many instances, constitutes meaningless marketing hype promoted by corporate interests seeking to cash in on the consumer’s desire for food produced in a genuinely healthy and sustainable manner.
Unlike the organic label, no government agency, certification group or other independent entity defines the term “natural” on food packages or ensures that the claim has merit (other than meat, where the USDA has created some extremely modest requirements). Each corporation determines its own definition of the “natural” label.
“Natural” generally is thought to mean “no artificial ingredients,” including preservatives, but the farms and processing plants that produce ingredients for “natural” foods are not prohibited by law from using dangerous pesticides, genetically engineered crops, fumigants, solvents and toxic processing aids. These agricultural and manufacturing inputs are not required by law to be listed on ingredient labels.
This report explores the growing trend toward labeling conventional foods as “natural,” focusing on breakfast cereal and granola, which are considered staples in many American households. Since breakfast cereals are popular with children, it is especially important for parents to be aware of the differences between “natural” products, with conventional ingredients, and certified organic ones. Children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides and other inputs that are commonly used in “natural” products but prohibited in organics.
This report stresses that the terms “natural” and “organic” are not interchangeable, and an analysis of the differences shows why health-conscious and ecoconscious consumers should check carefully for the word “organic” before putting a box of cereal or bag of granola in their shopping cart.
Section I covers the legal requirements that distinguish organic claims from “natural” claims on food packages. Federal law requires that foods with the “organic” label be produced in ways that are substantially different from conventional food production. Independent USDA-accredited certifying agents ensure that organic producers follow these strict federal standards. No such legal requirement exists for “natural” labels on foods. Since no federal law exists to define and standardize “natural” claims, each company comes up with its own self-serving definition.
Section II explores several company definitions of “natural,” underscoring how vastly different they can be. For example, some companies go to the expense of procuring non-genetically engineered corn in “natural” products, while many “natural” breakfast cereals contain high levels of genetically engineered ingredients. Yet despite the substantial legal difference between organic and “natural” labels on foods, polls show many consumers are unaware of these differences.
In Section III, results from various polls show that many consumers erroneously believe that the “natural” label has merit, such as signifying that the food is free of pesticides and genetically engineered ingredients. Companies that market “natural” foods to ecoconscious and health-conscious consumers benefit from this widespread confusion between organic and “natural.”
Section IV details various tactics that have been used by companies in their attempt to appear to be equivalent to organics, intentionally blurring the distinction to mislead shoppers. To empower consumers who wish to support companies that are committed to organics, food safety and environmentally sustainable agriculture,
Section V includes company profiles of organic and “natural” cereal and granola brands. This section lifts the veil on corporate owners of popular brands that sometimes actively hide their identity from their customers, perhaps knowing that consumers drawn to “natural” labels would not be interested in enriching multibillion- dollar corporations. Bear Naked®, owned by Kellogg Company, is an example: The name Kellogg appears nowhere on Bear Naked® packaging or its website. This section sheds light on corporate identities of popular organic and “natural” brands, ranging from small family businesses to multinational corporations.
Section VI explores price differences between organic and “natural” breakfast cereal and granola products. Although “natural” products are conventional (both in crop production and processing methods), they often are priced at a premium, closer to organic prices. In some cases, conventional, “natural” products are priced higher than their organic counterparts. It appears that companies are engaged in clever “natural” marketing, profiting tremendously from consumer confusion about the difference between “natural” and organic and their willingness to pay a premium for pure, wholesome foods. “Natural” marketing hurts certified organic farmers, organic competitors, and consumers who believe they are buying a truly natural product.
Section VII discusses the effects of “natural” claims on the organic manufacturers whose certified organic products are forced to compete with empty “natural” claims. Companies marketing “natural” products merely pay lip service to sustainability and eco-friendliness, while undercutting the truly committed companies that walk their talk by buying from farms that are managed organically, without synthetics, genetically engineered crops or toxic pesticides. Many times “natural” companies invest in solar or wind energy to prove how “green” they are, rather than investing in organic, the safest and most environmentally friendly form of agriculture.
Section VIII discusses the effects of “natural” marketing on organic farmers. When food manufacturers ship their product ingredients from organic to “natural,” it means they buy conventional ingredients from chemical-intensive farms instead of buying from organic farms. Organic farmers have received lower prices for their grains in recent years as cereal companies drop their demand for organic ingredients when they switch to “natural” labeling and conventional ingredients.
Section IX covers differences in environmental impacts of certified organic farming and conventional farming that produces ingredients for “natural” products. some companies go to the expense of procuring nongenetically engineered corn in “natural” products, while many “natural” breakfast cereals contain high levels of genetically engineered ingredients. As shown by poll data, many consumers believe that “natural” means the food is free of “unnatural” inputs, such as genetically engineered seed and pesticides.
Section X explores various impacts on consumers of misleading “natural” labeling and consuming conventional ingredients. Section X also provides test results showing that many “natural” cereal products, including Kashi, Mother’s and Barbara’s Bakery, are produced with genetically engineered organisms. Section X also uses pesticide residue data from the United States Department of Agriculture to show that many conventional ingredients in “natural” breakfast cereal and granola products often contain pesticide residues. Aside from chemical residues emanating from crop production on the farm, “natural” ingredients are also not protected from toxic fumigants used on crops in storage, and toxic solvents used during processing. These inputs are strictly prohibited in organic production and processing. Consumers should be aware that “natural” products contain conventional ingredients that were produced no differently from the ingredients in other typical processed foods. Only certified organic ingredients were verified as grown and processed without the use of genetically engineered organisms, toxic pesticides, fumigants and solvents.
This report is accompanied by an online scorecard with nearly 50 cereal and granola brands, available on the Cornucopia website (www.cornucopia.org).
This was just the executive summary. If you want to read the entire thing (which I recommend - You may be shocked), you can do so here: