More and more, you'll see food products in your store displaying labels that describe the products as containing ingredients that are "all-natural."
About 15 percent of new food and drink products in the USA are being marketed on a an "all-natural" label claim. Often, these products come with a premium price tag, giving you the impression that you're getting a higher-quality and more nutritious product.
The other most common label used to distinguish premium-quality food products is the USDA Organic seal. Surveys indicate that the majority of the food-buying public think that "organic" and "natural" are synonymous. Many other consumers believe that "all-natural" is just as good, or even better, than "organic." Let's take a look at the natural vs organic debate and I'll reveal what the differences are.
“Natural” generally is thought to mean no artificial ingredients or preservatives. The term "All-Natural," when seen on a package, leads the consumer to believe that they're getting a completely wholesome, healthy and safe food product. In truth, the "natural" label means absolutely nothing.
In many instances, "all-natural" is meaningless marketing hype designed to cash in on your desire for food produced in a genuinely healthy and sustainable way. There are absolutely no legal requirements or restrictions for foods labeled this way. No government agency, certification group or other independent lab defines the term “natural” or ensures that the claim is valid. Each food maker is free to determine their own definition for the “natural” label.
Genetically engineered ingredients, toxic pesticides, sewage sludge, fumigants and petrochemical solvents would never be considered “natural” to most people. In truth, the ingredients for foods labeled “all-natural” can, and often do, include all of these dangerous ingredients.
Furthermore, most "natural" products — produce, dairy, canned or frozen goods — are produced on large industrial farms or in processing plants that create massive environmental pollution, use lots of chemicals and consume tons of energy.
The term “natural” on food packages is meaningless in terms of pesticide residues. “Natural” foods legally can be treated with the same pesticides used on other conventional foods.
Pesticide use in conventional agriculture is not limited to the farm fields. Harvested crops, such as corn, oats and wheat, can be sprayed regularly with more toxic pesticides during storage.
“All-natural” ingredients may also be treated with toxic fumigants during storage, and toxic solvents during their processing. None of these agricultural and manufacturing methods are required by law to be listed on ingredient labels. Even if the label lists only natural ingredient names, the product may still be contaminated with any number of toxic chemical additives.
For example, the FDA does not set a maximum residue level in "natural" soy foods for hexane, a petroleum-based solvent, despite the fact that it's a known neurotoxin. And, in fact, many veggie burgers and nutrition bars bearing a “natural” label contain hexane-extracted soy protein ingredients. The same holds true in the cereal aisle, where products with soy ingredients are commonly found.
If you examine the definitions of “natural” used by a variety of food companies, you'll see how vastly different the standards can be. For example, some companies go to the added expense of procuring non-genetically engineered corn in their “natural” products, while many “natural” food products contain high levels of genetically engineered ingredients. Most consumers are unaware of this difference, since genetically engineered ingredients are not required to be identified as such on the package.
When determining their “natural” standards, many companies will use profitability as a major reason to determine how to label a food product. Optimal nutrition and environmental concerns are unlikely to be factored into this profitability equation.
Corporations have a legal obligation to increase profit — they will try to appeal to health-conscious shoppers only up to the point where doing so is advantageous to their profit margins. They are unlikely to jeapardize their bottom line when setting their definition of “natural.”
In line with this, corporations are not likely to pay higher prices for ingredients used in a “natural” product, nor do they have to. They look for ways to charge higher prices to consumers while holding down their costs, and “natural” products are a perfect solution. Companies can market “natural” products as if they were equivalent to organic products, without having to pay higher prices for superior organic ingredients. “Natural” products are often priced unreasonably high, closer to organic prices than conventional.
A typical description of such a product may read like this:
“All natural means choosing high-quality ingredients to provide optimum nutrition and taste. It means no refined sugar, hydrogenated oils, artificial food additives, flavors or preservatives.”
This statement sounds reassuring, but fails to mention that there are probably toxic pesticides and other chemicals used in the farms and processing plants that produce the ingredients. It also does not mean the absence of genetically engineered ingredients.
Most companies do not share their detailed standards for “natural” foods with the public. Kashi®, for example, owned by Kellogg Company, would likely not want their customers to think that their “natural” foods may contain hexane-extracted and genetically engineered soy ingredients.
This contrasts sharply with certified organic products, which are all labeled according to transparent, federally regulated standards. Organic standards are developed with public input, and all foods that carry the word “organic” on packaging or labels must conform to the same standards.
Polls have found that a majority of consumers believe that the “natural” label implies that there are no genetically engineered ingredients in the food. Nothing could be further from the truth. The USDA Organic Seal is the only way to know for sure that the product contains no GM ingredients.
The food industry is fighting tooth-and-nail to avoid the labeling of genetically-modified foods. Why? They claim that there's no difference between GM foods and conventional ones, so labeling isn't necessary. In truth, they know that the overwhelming majority of Americans don't want GM foods.
Many consumers in the U.S. believe that the FDA approves genetically modified foods through rigorous, in-depth, long-term studies. In reality, the agency has absolutely no safety testing requirements. Instead they rely on research from companies like Monsanto (the largest producer of GM technology), research that is meticulously designed to avoid finding problems and cover up the dangers of genetically-modified foods.
Genetically engineered (GE) foods have not been adequately tested for safety, regardless of what the food industry has said. Not only that — independent research on GM seeds is nearly impossible to do, because anyone buying genetically engineered seed has to sign a technology licensing agreement stating that no research will be conducted with the seed!
The Institute for Responsible Technology, a nonprofit group and leader in the fight against GMOs, notes:
“Before the FDA decided to allow genetically engineered organisms into food without labeling, FDA scientists had repeatedly warned that genetically-engineered foods can create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems. They urged long-term safety studies, but were ignored.”
Discover more about the hazards of GMOs at
Are Genetically-Modified Foods Safe?
See the Institute for Responsible Technology
for more info on GMOs.
Food corporations use various tactics to make their products appear to be healthier and equivalent to organics. Often, the methods used are very subtle and not easy to detect. For example, some companies start out as organic, and build consumer loyalty as an organic brand, but then switch to non-organic “natural” ingredients and labeling. Often, nothing changes in the look of the packaging, so the consumer doesn't realize that a change has been made. The price doesn't come down, either.
Some companies promote their brand’s organic products without mentioning that many of their other products are not certified organic. This leads organic consumers to associate that brand with the organic label, when in truth the brand comprises many more nonorganic, “natural” products.
When a multinational corporation owns a brand that represents itself as “natural,” the corporate owner will rarely be listed on the packaging. For example, consumers likely do not realize that a package of Kashi® cereal is manufactured by Kellogg's, or that Silk® soy milk is now under the ownership of Dean foods. You view a chart that reveals exactly who owns what at The Cornucopia Institute's Who Owns Organic?
Some manufacturers continue to use artificial and synthetic ingredients in their foods, and instead of putting the word “natural” on the box, just change the packaging to give the impression of being natural. For example, Kellogg’s® granola does not use the term “natural” but states “WHOLE GRAIN” in green letters on an earth-colored box, which gives it a “natural” look. Sad to say, this is enough to fool a good number of consumers into thinking that they're getting a wholesome and all-natural product.
What does "certified organic" or "USDA Organic" mean? Certified organic means the farmer or producer has undergone a regular inspection of its farm, facilities, ingredients, and practices by an independent third-party certifier, accredited by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). The producer has followed strict NOP regulations and maintained detailed records.
Organic means that no genetically engineered ingredients, synthetic pesticides, animal drugs, sewage sludge, irradiation, and chemical fertilizers are allowed. Farm animals, soil, and crops have been managed organically. Food can be processed using only approved methods. Ingredients must be on the "allowed" list. Doesn't this sound like the way food should be produced?
Instead of using synthetic fertilizers, organic farmers focus on building soil fertility using natural means, such as crop rotation and composted livestock manure. To manage pests, organic farmers seek a balanced farm system, using crop rotation, beneficial insects and birds that eat insects, and hands-on management instead of toxic chemicals. Pesticides used on a conventional farm are not easily contained, and inevitably contaminate aquifers, streams and rivers, eventually finding their way into drinking water resources.
Organic farming also benefits the environment in terms of global climate change, since organic farmers use fewer fossil fuels, and healthy organic soil sequesters carbon. Organic farming represents an ecologically sustainable food production system, which means it supports wildlife conservation, climate change mitigation, and the sustainability of the farmland. Buying “natural” products, on the other hand, means supporting the environmentally destructive factory farm model of agriculture.
When it comes to selecting foods that are pure, wholesome and nutritious, the USDA Seal is your best guide. The official USDA symbol verifies that the product contains only safe, natural and healthy ingredients. Organics also undergo the most thorough testing and inspection procedures of all foods. No other labeling designation offers you the same assurance of quality.
In the end, there's organic and there's everything else. Educating yourself in the art of reading ingredient labels is certainly useful — just remember that labels alone won't tell you enough. What's not required to be on the label may be just as important as what's on there. With the organic label, you're getting the highest standard there is. No "all-natural" food product goes through the kind of rigorous inspection and regulation that organic products do.
The Cornucopia Institute has published a comprehensive, 48-page report on abuse in the packaged cereal market, with loads of graphs and charts to illustrate the deceptive practices of the food industry in regards to "natural" labels. You can find out which name brands you can trust — and which are only fronts for big corporations that don't have any investment in providing you with truly healthy food. You'll also see how prices compare between natural vs organic varieties.
Download your free copy of the Cornucopia Cereal Report before you go shopping again.
If we had adequate oversight and enforcement of laws that regulate the handling and production of our food supply, we might not need organizations like the the Cornucopia Institute.
Unfortunately, that's not the case. The FDA and the USDA are notoriously lax when it comes to regulating corporate factory farms and food production, allowing them to create organically-labeled food that doesn't meet all the standards that it should.
If you want to make a difference and support higher standards for the safety and quality of our food supply, please support the political action organizations that you'll see listed in the right hand column of every page on this site. They'll give you all the resources and information you'll need to make your voice heard.
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