'Natural' versus 'Organic' and Genetically Modified Organisms

Has Kashi pulled a fast one?

Do you know what’s in your granola? (Photo via Thinkstock.)

A small grocery store in Rhode Island has sparked a very large debate. After removing Kashi products from its shelves, citing genetically modified organisms (GMO) as the catalyst, a patron’s photo of the sign quickly went viral. Kashi, if you’re not familiar with it, is a heavyweight in the healthy foods market, popular for its granola, granola bars, crackers, and similar products. Now though, people from all over the country are flocking to Kashi’s Facebook page to voice their dismay and disappointment with Kashi. At the center of this debate is the conflict between GMOs and the food company’s use of the word “natural” on their products.

The question is: Has Kashi really duped its customers for this many years or is there more to this picture?

First, we must start with the labeling term “natural.” The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have an exact definition for it, but loosely states that it “applies broadly to foods that are minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives; artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, and artificial additives; growth hormones; antibiotics; hydrogenated oils; stabilizers; and emulsifiers.” As you might have noticed, there is no mention of genetically modified organisms in the FDA statement.

Next, let’s move to the definition of the label “organic.” Organic is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture and is defined as being: “ … produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.” Products with 95 percent of the ingredients meeting this standard will display the USDA Organic Seal.

Confused? You’re not alone. In 2008, a study by the Shelton Group found that consumers believe the term “natural” is more eco-friendly than the term “organic.” And a report last year from the Cornucopia Institute found that most consumers believe the term “natural” means free of pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified foods, which is not the case.

The truth is, because of the current labeling laws and a lack of a strict definition on the term “natural,” Kashi is well within its legal rights to use the term on every food product it has that meet those standards, and so can anyone else. Look around the grocery store during your next visit, and notice how many times the word “natural” gets plastered across everything from coffee creamers to jelly beans to Cheetos.

The debate around using genetically modified organisms in food products is too in depth for this article. However, despite your feelings on the subject, there is a way to know if you are eating a genetically modified product – read the label. If it’s certified organic, then it’s free of GMOs. Alternatively, you can keep an eye out for food companies voluntarily labeling their products as GMO free. As of today, there is no requirement on the labeling of GMOs, but that is also a hot debate as seen here and here. My recommendation? Stay informed. If you’re really concerned, read up on labeling laws, call the food company in question, or ask a dietitian or expert in food policy.