The Trouble with “Natural” Foods

I’ve raved before about the Cornucopia Institute and the fine work it does.

Sure, the Cornucopia Institute is an interest group like any other.  In this case, they advocate for family-scale farming.  And while this may make the Institute sound like a “better” interest group than one made of giant corporations, I’m not sure that it is; it’s just an organization put together by a number of people who are looking out for their own interests.  And whether you sympathize with large agribusiness firms or small family farmers–and each group has its major drawbacks and its major plusses–it helps to recognize these groups for what they are.  Not necessarily good, not necessarily bad, but an integral part of our democracy.


Kashi uses GMOs? Even I was surprised.

But I still love the Cornucopia Institute.   It conducts research that nobody conducts.  It publishes reports that hit hard and speak directly to issues with our food system that no one else addresses.  And it gets to the heart of matters that other organizations hesitate to discuss because the Cornucopia Institute simply doesn’t have the same interests that most big players in the industry have.  Because it fights for an interest group that’s relatively small and has limited financial might, it doesn’t have the same stake in the status quo as big food businesses that thrive off of the way things are today and would like to keep it that way, or politicians who rely in part on these companies to finance election campaigns.

And so we end up with reports like Cornucopia’s latest, entitled “Cereal Crimes: How ‘Natural’ Claims Deceive Consumers and Undermine the Organic Label–A Look Down the Cereal and Granola Aisle.”

The report pulls no punches.  At its core, it objects to companies’ use of the word “natural” on their products.  The word is not regulated, as is “organic,” with the exception of very loose regulations on what can be labeled “natural” meat.

And yet “natural” still pulls much of the same attention, sales and pricing premiums that “organic” pulls.  As a result, people are paying higher prices for so-called “natural” products under the mistaken assumption that they don’t contain harmful “unnatural” ingredients including genetically modified ingredients and pesticide residues (neither of which are permitted in organic food).

None of this is new or shocking; organic industry insiders have been wringing their hands over this situation for years, as natural food products convince consumers that they’re better for people’s health and the environment when in reality it’s nearly always the other way around.  But this dynamic is one that’s rarely brought to the public’s attention, and behind which no great publicity or organizational force has been brought to bear.

So it’s refreshing to see a long, detailed and cogent report that highlights these issues and brings them somewhat closer to the public’s attention.  It’s also interesting to hear some of the specific examples the Cornucopia Institute cites of companies selling “natural” foods at a greater premium than many organic foods, under the guise that word “natural” itself conveys particular health and environmental benefits.

One example is Peace Cereal, which built up a strong business with its organic line of product.  Peace then changed from “organic” to “natural,” began purchasing ingredients from conventional farmers who use pesticides, and yet kept its branding the same except for the removal of the USDA Organic seal.  Consumers on the balance did not notice the change; and neither did retailers.  Many retailers still labeled the product as “organic” on their shelves until the Cornucopia Institute ran its own industry study and told retailers the product was no longer organic.  Peace has not lowered its prices despite the change.

Another example is “natural” food products that contain up to 100% genetically modified ingredients.  The Cornucopia Institute found high levels of GMOs in Kashi GoLean, Mother’s Bumpers, Nutritious Living Hi-Lo and General Mills Kix.  This was a surprise to me, as I’ve eaten Kashi cereals in the past, assuming that their “natural” branding and labeling suggested I was getting something different from regular cereals.

Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised: I write regularly on this blog that the only way to be sure you’re not consuming the worst of pesticides and herbicides, or GMOs of any sort, is to eat organic.  But even I’m surprised sometimes by what you find from some “natural” brands.

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One Response to The Trouble with “Natural” Foods

  1. Pingback: Natural vs. Organic Cereal | Shift Frequency

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