A revelatory report released by The Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog, has stirred controversy in the natural foods marketing arena by highlighting abusive marketing practices by some of the nation’s largest breakfast cereal manufacturers. In some cases, companies such as Kellogg’s, Quaker Oats (PepsiCo), Barbara’s Bakery and Whole Foods Market are selling products contaminated with toxic agrichemicals and Monsanto’s genetically engineered organisms while promoting them as “natural.”
The new report, Cereal Crimes: How “Natural” Claims Deceive Consumers and Undermine the Organic Label—A Look Down the Cereal and Granola Aisle, explores this growing trend of marketing conventional foods as “natural” to lure health-conscious and eco-conscious consumers and their shopping dollars.
Unlike the organic label, no government agency, certification group, or other independent entity defines the term “natural” on processed food packages or ensures that the claim has merit.
In contrast, breakfast cereals displaying the USDA’s “certified organic” label are produced under a strict set of verified standards prohibiting the use of petrochemical-based fertilizers, sewage sludge, synthetic toxic pesticides, genetically modified crops, and other many common conventional agricultural and manufacturing inputs.
Cereal Crimes details how prominent agribusinesses are increasingly using various strategies to create the illusion of equivalence between the “natural” and organic labels to mislead consumers.
“Some companies that started out organic, and built brand loyalty as organic brands, have switched to non-organic ingredients and “natural” labeling,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, Director of Farm and Food Policy at Cornucopia.
One such brand, Peace Cereal® is an example of what Cornucopia calls “bait-and-switch.” In 2008, the Peace Cereal® brand switched from organic to cheaper conventional ingredients, without lowering its prices. Today, the cereal is sold in natural food stores and mainstream grocers at prices above many of their certified organic competitors that are using more expensive organic ingredients.
Although the prices may be similar, in reality, there is a vast difference between organic and “natural” products from grain produced with the use of toxic pesticides. In some cases, companies charge high prices for “natural” products that even contain genetically engineered crops developed by St. Louis-based Monsanto.
Pesticides that are strictly prohibited in organics are commonly used to produce ingredients for “natural” products. For example, organophosphate pesticides were developed from World War II-era nerve gas and are designed to be toxic to the neurological systems of target organisms. They are deadly to insects but also have been proven damaging to humans—with fetuses and children especially at risk.
Several recent studies have linked organophosphate pesticide exposure to a wide range of developmental disorders in children, including behavioral problems, poorer short-term memory and motor skills, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. While federal law prohibits organic farmers from using these toxic pesticides, no such restriction exists for “natural” products.
“This is exactly why parents are seeking out truly natural (organic) products for their children and are deceived by corporate agribusinesses and their Madison Avenue agencies,” said Vallaeys.
USDA testing has found residues of organophosphate pesticides like chlorpyrifos and malathion on corn, soy, wheat flour, and oats, which are all common ingredients in breakfast cereals. In the case of wheat flour, residues were found in more than 60% of samples.
Given increasing consumer interest in avoiding genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, The Cornucopia Institute contracted with an independent, accredited laboratory to test many “natural” breakfast cereals for potential genetic contamination.
“Natural” cereals from brands including Kashi (Kellogg’s), Mother’s (PepsiCo), Nutritious Living, Barbara’s Bakery (Weetabix), and 365 (Whole Foods Market) contained high levels of genetically engineered ingredients (all above 28%, some as high as 100%) —even though a number of these companies represent their products as “non-GMO” to the public.
To help health-conscious consumers make informed grocery purchases, Cereal Crimes is accompanied by a Cereal Scorecard rating various breakfast cereal and granola brands for the true support of healthy and environmentally sustainable practices.
“Consumers probably find this marketplace subterfuge less surprising when they learn that many of the leading ‘natural’ cereal brands are really manufactured by giant agribusinesses like Kellogg’s, hiding behind the façade of well-established niche brands,” said Harry Bennett, a marketing official with the Kansas Organic Producers Association, a cooperative of marketing organic grain.
Despite finding that “natural” cereal products offer few, if any, advantages over conventional products, companies typically charge substantially high prices for products with “natural” labeling claims.
Analysis by Cornucopia of wholesale and retail cereal and granola prices revealed that “natural” products often are priced higher than equivalent organic products. This suggests that some companies are profiting from consumer confusion.
For example, prices in the leading natural/organic food distributor’s wholesale catalog for multigrain flakes show that two of the least expensive products are actually certified organic, offered by industry leader Nature’s Path and Food for Life. Meanwhile, Kashi’s 7-grain cereal, made with cheaper non-organic grains by the multinational corporation Kellogg but disguised as an independent sounding “natural” brand, is priced higher than equivalent organic options.
Karen Zwicky of Minneapolis, MN said she just bought several boxes of Kashi cereal for her 2 year old daughter, who she’s been feeding a “pretty” strict organic diet.
“Target was handing out samples of Kashi, and she loved the taste and I trusted the brand, even though it isn’t labeled as organic,” Zwicky explained. “I don’t mind that the big brands buy out the smaller organic and more sustainable companies, what really is disturbing to me is that it seems that they are only doing so in order to buy consumer trust.”
“Committed organic companies, rated highly in the Cornucopia’s online scorecard, must compete against giant multinationals such as Kraft Foods (Back to Nature), Pepsico (Mother’s) and Kellogg’s (Bear Naked /Kashi) and misleading “natural” marketing claims,” stated Mark A. Kastel, Codirector at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. “When marketers intentionally mislead consumers with their “natural” products, they are taking business away from the companies providing truly safe and healthy food and supporting certified organic farmers.”