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Nutrition Imposter: "Natural" products

Posted Apr 26 2012 10:55pm
Recently, Kashi cereals (owned by food giant Kellogg) has come under fire for "misleading" consumers that their "natural" products contained genetically modified ingredients and pesticides. The Cornucopia Institute recently published a report titled "Cereal Crimes: How "Natural Claims Deceive Consumers and Undermine the Organic Label - A Look Down the Cereal and Granola Isle" , which found that many products labelled as "natural", contained GMOs and pesticides. Kashi scored poorly in the report because only 4 of its products were Certified Organic. When a grocery store removed Kashi (and other implicated brands) from their shelves, based on this report, and replaced it with this sign, photos went viral and people were angry.

Is this really a case of health- or green washing? Or is this simply a case of misinformed public? Is Kashi really to blame?

Kashi has 24 products, 4 of which are labelled "Certified Organic". Therefore, the others, one would deduce, are not organic, and may contain (as in all conventional products) things like GMOs and any array of pesticides. Did Kashi mislabel conventional cereals as "Organic"? No. So why were people so outraged?

It all comes down to "natural"

Although most of Kashi's products are not Certified Organic, Kashi has always portrayed its products as "healthy", through marketing, imagery, and advertising. Their website proclaims: We can’t say it enough—We’re passionate about good, all-natural foods, and there is an abundance of "natural living" and "natural foods" references on their website. Kashi really emphasizes an importance on health and the environment, even going so far as to offer "eco-friendly ideas" and "lifestyle tools". Unfortunately, all this "natural" talk (and its right on the box) led many people to assume that Kashi's products were GMO- and pesticide-free.

Obviously, there's a large misunderstanding of common food packaging terminology. Is Kashi to blame? Did they take advantage of a knowledge gap among consumers and knowingly mislead them? Probably. But again, only the products that were Certified Organics were labelled as such. It's unfortunate that this term is so widely misunderstood, and that marketing teams are exploiting that. The extent of this really just became apparent to me from this "scandal" and the outrage I have seen from (previously) loyal Kashi buyers.

This overuse of the term "natural" has been going on for years, and is only really coming to light now. The reasons we see "natural" products so widely available are simple: big food companies know that people are becoming more concerned with their health and food, and are using that to their full marketing potential. Secondly, "natural" is a meaningless, unregulated word that any company can use for any product, without having to meet any criteria or standard.

"Natural" products typically are far from it. The term is slapped on the bottle or box (of foods, cleaning agents, etc) to disillusion consumers into thinking it's a greener or more healthful product. If it were truly as good as they want you to think, the product would like be labelled with a regulated eco-label, such as Certified Organic. Certainly, Certified Organic products aren't without their own issues , but in terms of steering clear of GMOs and conventional pesticides, Certified Organic products are your best bet.

Hopefully, this is just the beginning of an increased awareness among consumers about what "natural" does (or doesn't) mean.

What should you do in the grocery isle?

Here's my advice: don't pay an extra dime for a product labelled natural than you would for a conventional product, and don't have any higher expectations that the natural product will provide any more healthful, or less harmful, ingredients than conventional products. If you're looking for truly "natural" food products, Certified Organic is your best bet.

More info: Marion Nestle's post

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