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Hi, I'm Malcolm Woods

I’m the New Media Editor at Outpost, though I’m the old media editor, as well. In both capacities, I read, hear, photograph and write about food. I also eat food pretty regularly, all of which means I spend a lot of time thinking about food in...
Malcolm Woods

The Natural War of the Words

Food, Love and Policy By Malcolm Woods on October 17, 2011

A new report is generating some buzz in the natural foods industry. The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based advocacy group which pushes for sustainable and organic agriculture, tested a number of natural and organic cereal brands and found that many of the cereals labeled as natural contained evidence of genetically modified products (GMOs). Further, the report suggests that “natural” cereals may contain pesticide residues.



In the new report, called Cereal Crimes, the Institute argues that “natural” labels deceive consumers and undermine the effectiveness and worth of the “organic” label. (You can download a copy of the report here.)


The term organic is strictly defined by federal laws and overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).


The study highlights several issues:

1)   The term ‘natural” has no regulatory legal definition. Without laws defining what the term might mean, companies shape it for their own purposes. At Outpost, of course, the term “natural foods” is actually part of our name, and you can find our definition of the phrase on our web site and in our product policies. To us, natural means “foods that do not contain artificial colors, flavors, harmful preservatives or sweeteners. Our naturally raised meats and poultry come from animals that have access to the outdoors, are treated humanely, and were not given artificial growth hormones. “

2)   Without legally binding terminology, consumers can and do get confused about the meaning of the word natural.

3)   Natural and organic are not interchangeable, but in the report, Cornucopia points to several manufacturers that have changed the labeling (and content) of their products from “organic” to “natural.”

4)   The amount of GMOs in conventional foods would likely surprise most people.

5)   Many of the ingredients used in natural cereals have been shown to contain detectable concentrations of organophosphate pesticides in data collected by the USDA in the past. The report did not test the actual “natural” cereals, but points to that USDA data to suggest that the “natural” cereals could therefore contain those pesticides.


The names of some of the cereals tested will be familiar to shoppers at Outpost. Barbara’s Bakery, Peace Cereal and Annie’s were among the companies called out by the institute for moving from organic to natural ingredients.


In what was probably a response to a decreased demand and to rising prices (or perhaps due to some research that told them customers would still buy their product even if it was no longer organic, I don’t know), some companies have in the past several years moved away from organic ingredients, replacing them with ingredients that hail from a wide spectrum of sources. Cornucopia charges that those companies are attempting to deceive their customers by moving to the more vague “natural” ingredients. My guess is that none of the companies named by Cornucopia really wanted to publicize the change. “Our product now slightly less desirable than before!” doesn’t really fly as a sales pitch.


So, a cereal that once was organic no longer is. Now it is “natural,” a term that has some nice feel-good sort of baggage but in truth can mean whatever the company wants it to mean. The terminology isn’t limited to cereals, of course. You can find “natural” meats, beverages, crackers, cookies, chips and many more in the supermarket.


Cornucopia clearly would like for us to stop selling the natural cereals (and probably those other “natural” products, too). Maybe you do, too.


But the dollars spent by our shoppers and owners tell us otherwise. They tell us that we should be offering choices. We sell some of the “natural” cereals. They do fall somewhere on the spectrum closer to the idea of healthy foods. They don’t contain artificial ingredients or colorings, for example, and are often lower in sugar than the conventional varieties, so in that way are more “natural” and probably healthier than conventional breakfast cereals.


We sell them, right next to the organic cereals.


Maybe we should tell you more about some of those organic cereals.


Nature’s Path is the single largest vendor in the cereal category at Outpost. They are numerous reasons we are proud to carry its products. Nature’s Path cereals contain certified organic ingredients, and the company is family owned and managed, is an active participant in the Non-GMO project and even has a plant right up the road in Sussex. It’s a local employer!


Another company we’re happy to work with is Country Choice. We sell its hot cereals and cookies. Country Choice also uses certified organic ingredients, also participates in the Non-GMO project and is headquartered in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, making it a regional vendor.


We sell their products because organic foods are very important to our vision of a healthy community. We carry numerous organic products and we strictly follow regulations about the handling and sale of organic products. Our Co-op Community Fund has for years donated money to help Wisconsin farmers get organic certification. The issue has long been dear to our owners.


But our owners are 16,000 strong, and are, as you can imagine, a diverse group. Organic food is just one of numerous interests our owners hold. In recent years, local food and commerce has become a critical issue to many of our owners and shoppers. We now endeavor to seek out and work with hundreds of small local and regional suppliers, even when the foods they grow may not always be organic.


The local apple harvest, for example, is a highlight of the year in our stores, with delicious variety after delicious variety tumbling into our stores from Barthel’s Fruit Farm in Mequon. Barthel’s uses IPM – Integrated Pest Management – to control pests with as few chemicals as they can get away with. Our owners and other shoppers support Barthel’s with their purchases.


It’s a complicated world out there for the consumers hoping to do the best they can with the food dollars they spend. We all want good, nutritious food and a vibrant, healthy, diverse and economically sustainable local community.


We remain committed to providing you with the educational resources you need to make the best decisions for your own and your family’s health.


We also happen to think that you, the consumer, should know what is in the food you buy and eat. That is why Outpost is a sustaining member of the Truth in Labeling Coalition. The coalition is a non-profit organization whose mission is to make it mandatory for manufacturers to disclose GE and GMO foodstuffs on labels. You can help by signing the coalition’s petition here


Thanks Malcolm and Outpost for this straightforward, well-written explanation! Posted by: Allison | October 20 at 10:34 AM

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