The row over the use of the term ‘natural’ on food packaging has intensified with the publication of a new report accusing leading cereal firms of duping shoppers with their own “self-serving” definitions in the absence of any legal criteria.
While manufacturers are not breaking the law by describing products containing pesticide residues, GMOs or ingredients extracted with organic solvents as ‘all-natural’, the description is nevertheless misleading because surveys consistently show most consumers* assume ‘natural’ means GMO- and pesticide free, claims the report from organic farming lobby group The Cornucopia Institute.
‘Meaningless marketing hype’
Meanwhile, big brands are also benefiting from widespread ignorance of the difference between ‘natural’ and ‘organic’, claim the authors, who argue that many shoppers also believe ‘natural’ products are more eco-friendly than organic products**.
“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.
“Companies that market ‘natural’ foods to eco-conscious and health-conscious consumers benefit from this widespread confusion between organic and “natural.”
Indeed, such is the appeal of ‘all natural’ claims that some firms that had been committed to using organic ingredients had switched to an ‘all-natural’ marketing platform instead, “allowing them to market their products to the same concerned consumer target audience, while using cheaper conventional ingredients that they could source at conventional prices”, it 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.”
Several firms are criticized in the report, including PepsiCo (Quaker) and Kellogg, which is accused of being “simply dishonest” for describing its Bear Naked Peak Protein granola as containing only ‘bearly [sic] processed and all natural ingredients’ because it contains soy protein isolate extracted with hexane.
“Using highly explosive, polluting petrochemical solvents to process soybeans is not consistent with being barely processed.”
Firms marketing ‘all-natural’ cereals should go organic
The authors conclude by calling on firms marketing ‘all-natural’ breakfast cereal to “become organic as a service to their customers”.
They add: “Polls have shown that consumers care about claims such as ‘no pesticides’ and ‘no GMOs’. The only way to assure this is by being certified organic. ‘Natural’ claims may be profitable, but they are misleading and disingenuous unless the product is certified organic.”
FDA: No formal definition
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not established a formal definition for the term 'natural' on food labels but follows a 1993 policy that states:
“[FDA] has not objected to the use of the term [natural] on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Use of the term ‘natural’ is not permitted in a product's ingredient list, with the exception of the phrase ‘natural flavorings’.”
However, the term continues to prompt controversy (and lawsuits), generating an enormous amount of noise that some commentators argue has diverted attention from more substantive nutritional and sustainability issues (is the all-natural candy full of sugar? Is the all-natural flavor shipped half-way across the world?)
PepsiCo/Quaker was unavailable for comment as this article went to press. However, a Kashi (Kellogg) spokesman said: "Our belief is that both natural and organic foods can play important roles in positively impacting people and planet health...At Kashi, we provide comprehensive information about our foods to enable people to make well-informed choices and we stand behind our advertising and labeling practices."
*Cornucopia cites a 2010 poll by the Hartman Group revealing that 61% of consumers believe the term ‘natural’ implies the absence of genetically modified foods and 62% believe it implies the absence of pesticides.
** Cornucopia cites consumer polls by San Francisco-based research firm Context Marketing, released in 2009 and 2010, showing that more consumers value the term ‘natural’ than ‘organic’. It also cites a 2009 survey of 1,006 consumers by The Shelton Group showing that consumers found ‘100% natural’ to be more desirable as an eco-friendly product label claim than ‘100% organic’.
Click here to read the report: Cereal Crimes: How 'natural' claims deceive consumers and undermine the organic label - A look down the cereal and granola aisle