The Surprising Truth About Your Favorite Breakfast Cereals

July 13, 2015 Updated: July 14, 2015

Organic foods are required by U.S. federal law to be produced in ways that promote ecological sustainability, without common toxic and genetically engineered ingredients.  

But organic products are increasingly being forced to compete with products that are labeled as “natural.”

There are no restrictions on the term “natural”, and it often constitutes nothing more than meaningless marketing hype. 

According to a report from the Cornucopia Institute:

“[There is a] vast differences between organic cereal and granola products and so-called natural products, which contain ingredients grown on conventional farms where the use of toxic pesticides and genetically engineered organisms is widespread.

 Our analysis reveals that “natural” products—using conventional ingredients—often are priced higher than equivalent organic products. 

This suggests that some companies are taking advantage of consumer confusion.”

This is significant, because surveys have shown that more consumers pay attention to the “100% Natural” claim than the “100% Organic” label. In one such survey, 31 percent of respondents said the “100% Natural” label was the most desirable eco-friendly product claim, compared to just 14 percent who chose “100% Organic.” Food companies clearly know this, and they’re cashing in on your confusion. 

Are You Being Misled by Your Favorite “All-Natural” Brand?

According to the Cornucopia report:

“Since breakfast cereals are popular with children, it is especially important for parents to be aware of the differences between “natural” products, with conventional ingredients, and certified organic ones. Children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides and other inputs that are commonly used in “natural” products but prohibited in organics.”

Indeed, it’s not enough to be an avid label reader these days, you also have to know how the “labeling game” is being played by the food manufacturers. The average shopper would probably agree that the term “natural” evokes the idea that the food in question will not contain any added synthetic ingredients or chemicals, but because there is no standard definition of the term, with the exception of meat, “natural” in many cases equates to “conventional.”

The misuse of the term “natural” by companies who simply pay lip service to  sustainability and the organic movement undermines companies that are sincere in their efforts to bring you eco-friendly, unadulterated, safe foods.

The Cornucopia report clearly shows that the terms “natural” and “organic” are not interchangeable, and as a concerned shopper, you need to beware of the differences between the two, or risk paying more for what amounts to little more than a conventional product. 

The report also unveils the real owners of many of your all-natural brands—a piece of information that is oftentimes not disclosed anywhere on the packaging, or even on the product’s website—which might give you a hint that the product may be produced in less than organic ways. For example, both Kashi and Bear Naked are actually owned by Kellogg Company… Synthetic ingredients and additives, toxic pesticides, fumigants and solvents frequently show up in products bearing the “natural” label, while these are strictly prohibited in organic production. 

According to the report:

“On August 31, 2011, a class action lawsuit was filed against Kellogg/Kashi® for allegedly misleading consumers with its “natural” claims. One Kashi® product in particular, GoLean® Shakes, is composed almost entirely of synthetic and unnaturally processed ingredients, according to the plaintiff.”

 (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
There are no restrictions on the term “natural”, and it often constitutes nothing more than meaningless marketing hype. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

What You Need to Know About Organic Labels

It’s important to realize that there are several different organic labels out there, but only one relates directly to foods: the USDA Organic seal. This seal is your best assurance of organic quality. Growers and manufacturers of organic products bearing the USDA seal have to meet the strictest standards of any of the currently available organic labels.

  • Products labeled “100% Organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients 
  • Products labeled “Certified Organic” must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients 
  • The label “Made with Organic Ingredients” can contain anywhere between 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients 

In order to ensure you’re actually getting your money’s worth, you need to make sure the food you buy bears the “100% USDA Organic” label.  The problem with the latter two labels is obvious. Anywhere from five to 30 percent of the ingredients may be conventionally-grown, so you’re still exposed to pesticide residues and other questionable ingredients. The “Made with Organic Ingredients” is often misused and misleading, just as the “natural” label, as it allows for plenty of conventionally-produced ingredients.

A “100% Organic” product on the other hand cannot be irradiated, and cannot contain preservatives or flavor enhancing chemicals, nor traces of heavy metals or other contaminants in excess of tolerances set by the FDA. 

It must also be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity—so it encompasses organic in a holistic way, from start to finish. Crops must be grown without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers, and livestock cannot be given growth hormones.

So, in terms of organic food, there’s really only one label that can provide you with any real measure of quality, and that’s the “100% USDA Organic” label. As the Cornucopia report clearly shows, the “natural” label can be close to worthless in terms of protecting you from harmful ingredients and informing you about the manner in which it was grown.

Bait and Switch…

The Cornucopia report also brings up the problem of bait and switch:

“Some companies that started out organic, and built consumer loyalty as organic brands, have switched to non-organic “natural” ingredients and labeling. Peace Cereal® is an example of “bait-and switch.” 

In 2008, the company that owned the Peace Cereal® brand, Golden Temple, switched from organic to cheaper conventional ingredients, without lowering its prices. At the time of the switch, the company also did not change its package design, other than eliminating the USDA Organic seal and the word “organic” from its cereal boxes. Most egregiously, it did not change the barcode on the cereal boxes. Many retailers and shoppers were unaware of the switch until the Cornucopia Institute conducted an investigation in late 2010… 

Today, Peace Cereal® is owned by Hearthside Food Solutions, which changed its logo to include “All Natural,” appearing right below the “Peace Cereal®” name. Hearthside/Peace Cereal® continues to charge customers as much as or more than many certified organic competitors.”

According to the report, other companies that performed similar bait and switch maneuvers include Annie’s Homegrown and Barbara’s Bakery. Cereal and granola companies that started out organic, and remain faithful to the organic label include:

  • Food for Life 
  • Grandy Oats 
  • Nature’s Path 

Interestingly enough, when comparing wholesale prices for multigrain and specialty grain flakes, the two least expensive products are by committed organic companies, effectively shattering the myth that organic has to be more expensive than conventional. In other price comparisons, “natural” brands using conventionally-grown ingredients were priced exactly the same as 100 percent organic companies.

(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
If you’re going to shop by the label, make sure it’s the USDA certified 100% organic label. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

“Natural” Label Does NOT Prohibit Genetically Modified Ingredients

The USDA certified organic label is your best guarantee that the food was produced without

  • Toxic pesticides 
  • Genetically engineered (GM) ingredients 
  • Carcinogenic fumigants 
  • Chemical solvents 

This peace of mind is something the “100% Natural” label will NOT give you. Genetically modified (GM) ingredients are of particular concern when it comes to food products like breakfast cereals and granola bars, because, in the US, the vast majority of the most common ingredients in these products—corn, soy, and canola—are genetically modified. 

Unfortunately, more than 60 percent of consumers erroneously believe that the “natural” label implies or suggests the absence of GM ingredients, according to a 2010 Hartman Group poll. If you’re one of the 60 percent, please understand that at the current time, the ONLY label that can protect you against GM ingredients is the USDA 100% Organic label. 

Shocking Finding: Many Natural Brands Contain up to 100 Percent GM Ingredients!

The most disturbing finding presented in the featured report relates to GM ingredients found in so-called all-natural foods: 

“The Cornucopia Institute sent samples of breakfast cereal to an accredited and highly reputable GMO testing laboratory. Samples were tested for the exact percentage of genetically engineered corn or soybeans, using the most sophisticated and accurate tests commercially available.

The results were stunning. Several breakfast cereal manufacturers that market their foods as “natural,” even some that claim to avoid genetically engineered ingredients and are enrolled in the Non-GMO Project, contained high levels of genetically engineered ingredients.”

Natural products that contained 100 percent genetically modified grains included:

  1. Kashi® 
  2. Mother’s® 
  3. Nutritious Living® 
  4. General Mills Kix® 
  5. GoLean®
  6. Bumpers® 
  7. Hi-Lo® 

Two breakfast cereal products that are currently enrolled in the Non-GMO Project, Barbara’s Bakery’s Puffins and Whole Foods’ 365® Corn Flakes, contained more than 50 percent GM corn…   Meanwhile, the control, Nature’s Path® USDA certified organic corn flakes, contained only trace amounts of GM contamination (less than 0.5 percent). 

Cornucopia writes:

“These test results underscore the importance of the organic label, which ensures consumers that the manufacturer uses only non-genetically engineered ingredients. More extensive testing is necessary to draw conclusions regarding the truthfulness of “non-GMO” claims, but these preliminary results point to several problems. First, manufacturers can claim that they avoid purchasing genetically engineered ingredients, but these claims may be meaningless unless they are verified by a third party, such as an organic certifying agent.

In addition, many of the most reputable organic companies have developed their own testing protocols to ensure the purity of their products. Furthermore, the Non-GMO Project, which “enrolls” products before it verifies them as being non-GMO, may give consumers a false sense of security. Our test results reveal that several “enrolled” products were in fact made with GE ingredients.”

How to Find Healthy Food—100 Percent Organic or Not

As deplorable as this situation is, it’s not surprising. Food companies, as any other primarily profit-driven company, simply cannot let such a swelling market niche go untapped. However, if you realize that much of the all-natural claims are hype, it becomes easier to navigate around the deception. 

To find brands that are committed to sustainable organic agriculture and avoiding genetically engineered ingredients use Cornucopia’s Cereal Scorecard

Another factor to consider is the fact that many small family farms actually adhere to fully organic practices even though they may not have gone through the expense of obtaining organic certification. So labels aren’t everything when it comes to healthful food. But if you’re going to shop by the label, make sure it’s the USDA certified 100% organic label.  Aside from that, to find the freshest, healthiest foods out there, here are a few other guidelines to live by:

  1. Frequent farmer’s markets where you can find fresh locally-grown foods that are in season 
  2. Join a community-supported agriculture program if one is available near you (it allows you to buy produce, meats and other foods directly from the farm) 
  3. Take part in organic food co-ops in your area 
  4. Plant an organic garden; even a small space can produce a lot of fresh food and herbs 
  5. If you must shop in a supermarket, look for locally grown items, which are likely to be fresher than other foods

What Are GMOs?

GMOs are a product of genetic engineering, meaning their genetic makeup has been altered to induce a variety of “unique” traits to crops, such as making them drought-resistant or giving them “more nutrients.” GMO proponents claim that genetic engineering is “safe and beneficial,” and that it advances the agricultural industry. They also say that GMOs help ensure the global food supply and sustainability. But is there any truth to these claims? I believe not. For years, I’ve stated the belief that GMOs pose one of the greatest threats to life on the planet. Genetic engineering is NOT the safe and beneficial technology that it is touted to be. 

Help Support GMO Labeling 

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)—Monsanto’s Evil Twin—is pulling out all the stops to keep you in the dark about what’s in your food. For nearly two decades, Monsanto and corporate agribusiness have exercised near-dictatorial control over American agriculture. For example, Monsanto has made many claims that glyphosate in Roundup is harmless to animals and humans. However, recently the World Health Organization (WHO) had their research team test glyphosate and have labeled it a probable carcinogen.

Public opinion around the biotech industry’s contamination of our food supply and destruction of our environment has reached the tipping point. We’re fighting back. That’s why I push for GMO labeling. I donated a significant sum to the first ballot initiative in California in 2012, which inspired others to donate to the campaign as well. We technically “lost the vote, but we are winning the war, as these labeling initiatives have raised a considerable amount of public awareness. 

The insanity has gone far enough, which is why I encourage you to boycott every single product owned by members of the GMA, including natural and organic brands. More than 80 percent of our support comes from individual consumers like you, who understand that real change comes from the grassroots. 

Recently, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan) has reintroduced a bill (HR 1599) that would preempt states’ rights to enact GMO labeling laws. This bill would create a federal government program to oversee guidelines for voluntary labeling of products that do not contain GMOs. It would specifically prohibit Congress or individual states from requiring mandatory labeling of GMO foods or ingredients. It would also allow food manufacturers to use the word “natural” on products that contain GMOs. TAKE ACTION NOW! Your local representatives need to hear from you! Please contact them today by CLICKING HERE

Thankfully, we have organizations like the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) to fight back against these junk food manufacturers, pesticide producers, and corporate giants.

Internet Resources Where You Can Learn More

Non-GMO Food Resources by Country