Many of us will purchase a product because it claims to be natural, which we therefore think it means it will be of a higher quality. This is a marketing claim frequently made on product packaging, and particularly processed foods…but what does it really mean? How natural are the “natural” foods you eat?

The Case of Kashi Cereal

kashi cerealKellogg’s Corporation has long touted its Kashi-branded foods as wholesome and natural. In fact, when people eat Kashi products, they typically believe they are doing something great for their health. Recently, however, a Rhode Island grocer went viral when they replaced Kashi cereal on their shelves with sign pointing out Kashi used genetically modified (GMO) soy to make the cereal. The result was severe backlash, and Kashi has responded by pointing out its history of participation in non-GMO initiatives, as well as factors beyond the company’s control that cause GMO contamination of their supply chain in spite of their commitment to maintaining verifiable GMO practices in many of their foods.

This isn’t the first time, however, that Kashi cereal has come under fire. In 2011, The Cornucopia Institute tested several cereals that billed themselves as “natural,” including Kashi. Surprisingly, many enrolled in the Non-GMO Project, contained significant contamination by genetically modified ingredients.

Manufactured Foods

manufactured foodsUnfortunately, these results aren’t terribly surprising. While many food manufacturing companies use “natural” as a marketing term, there are no legal regulations as to what the word indicates. Using “natural” gives the public the perception of wholesome, pure, and healthy when in fact products labeled “natural” may contain chemicals, undergo chemical and toxic manufacturing processes, or may contain genetically modified ingredients. All of this is about as far away from “wholesome” and “healthy” as one can get, in spite of the labeling on the package.

It shouldn’t be surprising that manufactured foods labeled “natural” are, in fact, unnatural. The very idea of manufacturing foods is about as far from natural as one can get, and yet processed foods are just that: manufactured.

Greenwashing

greenwashing scamThe act of labeling these manufactured foods “natural” in order to provide the image of wholesomeness to customers is part of a larger marketing initiative in which many companies engage called “greenwashing.” Green washing occurs when companies attempt to jump on the growing call for healthy, wholesome products by using words, images, and labeling that imply their products are just as natural as a blade of grass. You see this across all sectors of industry – from cleaning and construction products to the foods you put on your table, and many consumers are fished in by these deceptive practices. In fact, The Cornucopia Institute report cited above shows just how confused consumers actually are by the “natural” label. The report cites multiple surveys showing that consumers believe the “all-natural” label is nearly the same as or better than the USDA Organic label.

The Difference Between “Natural” and “Organic”

natural vs organicThe USDA regulates which products can be labeled “organic.” Organic standards vary by food product, but in general certified organic foods must be free of pesticides, GMO, and chemical fertilizers. Livestock raised as organic also must be free of antibiotics and fed organic feed.

Natural, on the other hand, is a marketing term. While laws exist to protect consumers against grossly misleading advertising, it is companies that decide how they will define the word “natural” on their products. In general, the key consideration has nothing to do with the environment or good health. Rather, profit is the driving motive behind use of the term.

Genetic Contamination

genetic contaminationKashi’s argument against their recent bout of bad press is that many of their supply chain resources are contaminated, in spite of the company’s best efforts to remain GMO-free. While this argument certainly isn’t the entire story as far as Kashi goes, it does have some validity that should be of concern to consumers purchasing processed and/or manufactured foods. According to Kashi’s Public Relations Department, well over 80 percent of North American crops are genetically modified. The company also discusses contamination of organic and non-GMO crops.

This is, in fact, a problem in America, because winds can carry seeds from GMO crops to cross contaminate organic crops, according to Agri-View, a Wisconsin agricultural newspaper. Currently, there are no testing requirements to ensure organic crops are not contaminated by nearby GMO, and this is a concern, especially when 94 percent of planted acres of soybeans and 65 percent of planted acres of corn are genetically modified.

Why should you be concerned? Check out our recent blog post on the dangers of genetically modified crops for more information.

Avoiding the All-Natural Trap

So how do you ensure you are feeding your family healthy, wholesome, non-GMO foods and not just falling for marketing hype? This question is one of the biggest reasons I am such a fan of a whole plant foods-based, organic diet. If you read the labels of processed foods, you’ll likely discover that a majority of them contain derivatives of one or both of the two most widely-planted GMO crops in North America: corn and soy. For me, this is more than enough reason to stay away from processed foods and stick with organic plant foods sourced from respectable farmers. Here are my tips for avoiding the all-natural trap.

  • avoid fake all natural productsAvoid processed and fast foods.
  • If you do eat processed foods, look for “USDA Certified Organic” and “Non-GMO” on the label.
  • Avoid foods that contain corn and soy or their derivatives.
  • Eat mostly organic, non-starchy veggies and greens. Think of foods for energy, eating only what is natural from the earth.
  • If you eat animal products, only purchase those labeled “USDA Certified Organic.”
  • Buy local whenever possible and try to talk to the farmers to learn their growing practices.
  • Stick with minimally processed, whole grains labeled “Non-GMO” or “USDA Certified Organic,” such as quinoa and amaranth.
  • Other food ingredients that may contain GMO ingredients include sugar, vegetable oils (particularly canola), wheat, tomatoes, potatoes, flax, peas, and others.
  • Be wary of “all-natural” claims. Don’t believe a package label. Do your research, read labels, and learn what all of the ingredients listed are before feeding foods to your family (check out the Center for Food Safety’s True Food Shoppers Guide to help in your research)

Watching out for your family’s health requires vigilance, but you can make it easier if you minimize or avoid processed foods altogether. By staying informed and reading labels carefully, you can avoid being fished into to the “all-natural” marketing trap.