Is your breakfast cereal “natural” or “organic?” Think there is not much difference between the two? You’re not alone. Fancy marketing campaigns specifically designed to trick consumers into believing that these two terms essentially mean the same thing are in play every time you see a cereal box. But the true difference between “natural” and “organic” is huge and one organization took up the challenge of exposing this practice.

A just-released report from The Cornucopia Institute found many breakfast cereals bearing the label “natural” to be loaded with pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and ingredients processed with unnatural chemicals.  To be clear, the report was not looking at cereals such as Lucky Charms or Pops, but rather brands like Kashi, Barbara’s and Annie’s Homegrown; cereals and granola which are specifically marketed as health-conscious and “natural.” In Cereal Crimes: How “Natural” Claims Deceive Consumers and Undermine the Organic Label—A Look Down the Cereal and Granola Aisle, the analysis looked at over 45 “natural” cereal brands to determine how natural they really were. They also tested the products for the presence of GMOs. The results of the GMO tests were especially surprising. Even several brands enrolled in the Non-GMO Project contained genetically engineered (GE) ingredients.

Numerous “natural” products were indeed contaminated with high levels of GE ingredients, sometimes as high as 100%: Kashi® GoLean®, Mother’s® Bumpers®, Nutritious Living® Hi-Lo®, and General Mills Kix®.

For non-organic “natural” products making “non-GMO” claims, results showed that these claims cannot always be trusted. While Peace Cereal® and Annie’s Homegrown® were indeed free of significant levels of GE ingredients, Barbara’s Bakery® Puffins® and Whole Foods’ 365® Corn Flakes, which are both enrolled in the Non-GMO Project contained more than 50% GE corn. On the other hand, as a control, The Cornucopia Institute also tested Nature’s Path® certified organic corn flakes, which were free of significant GE contamination (>0.5%).

Surprised? Should “natural” foods be able to contain GMO ingredients? What about pesticides? What is the true difference between natural and organic?

“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.

To clarify, the claim, “natural,” has no federal guidelines surrounding it’s use or meaning whereas certified organic products must adhere to strict federal laws relating to the use of pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs. In addition, products labeled “organic” must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients and cannot be produced using sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation. There is a HUGE difference between these two words and yet most consumers don’t know it.

In a variety of different surveys, respondents thought that the term “natural” was more important and trustworthy than the term “organic.” The majority of respondents in a different survey thought “natural” implied an absence of pesticides, herbicides and GMOs. Companies are smart and profit driven so they intentionally blur the line between natural and organic. Why? “Natural” costs them next to nothing whereas using organic ingredients will cost them additional money. To add confusion, some brands started out all or mainly organic, such as Annie’s Homegrown and Peace Cereal, but over the years have either completely moved away from organics or now use a much lower percentage across their product lines. The only changes to the packaging was to replace “organic” with “natural” and the price stayed the same. Consumers are tricked into thinking they are still getting the organic version they’ve always purchased.

When it comes to price, you’d think there would be a big difference, but this is not always the case. In the report it states, “Our analysis of prices shows that some “natural” products are often priced unreasonably high, closer to organic prices than conventional.” Wow, so not only are consumers not getting organic cereal, they are also getting gouged at the register.

Many food companies move away from organic ingredients when they realize they can save money buy using conventional and still charge the same amount for the product. The deceptive “natural” marketing undermines the real organic brands. It forces brands devoted to 100% organic to compete with food giants like Kellogg’s (Kashi), Kraft (Back to Nature), and Pepsico (Mother’s). This trend also has a huge impact on the organic farmers who produce cereal grains such as corn and wheat. The domino effect continues as companies move away from organics and the end result is the environment suffers, farm workers suffer and finally, the consumer suffers.

What to do at the store:

  1. Check The Cornucopia Institute’s Cereal Scorecard (link below) to see how your current brand of cereal rates.
  2. If your cereal rates high, congrats! You are probably already buying organic.
  3. If you cereal brand rates low, don’t fret. Start comparing cereals and consider making the switch from relatively meaningless “natural” to certified organic. There is a good chance it may not even cost you more.
  4. If you are buying cereal, make sure it is certified organic and carries the USDA organic seal.

Click here to read the full report:

Cereal Crimes: How “Natural” Claims Deceive Consumers and Undermine the Organic Label—A Look Down the Cereal and Granola Aisle

To see the Cereal Scorecard and find out how your brand rates, click here:

Cereal Scorecard

Watch the video from The Cornucopia Institute:

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