The Surprising Truth About Your Favorite Breakfast Cereals

Story at-a-glance -

  • Beware, as the “100% Natural” label does NOT guarantee that the product is free of toxic pesticides, carcinogenic fumigants and solvent, or genetically modified ingredients. The only label that can give you that peace of mind is the “USDA Certified 100% Organic” label
  • Many all-natural brands mislead you into thinking you’re buying from a small, environmentally-conscious company, when in fact they’re owned by some of the largest processed food manufacturers in the world
  • Some companies have engaged in “bait and switch” tactics. They started out organic, and built consumer loyalty as organic brands, then switched to non-organic ingredients, while only changing their label from “organic” to “natural,” and keeping their prices the same
  • Independent testing by the Cornucopia Institute has shown that several breakfast cereals by manufacturers that market their foods as “natural”—even some that claim to avoid genetically engineered ingredients and are enrolled in the Non-GMO Project—contain high levels of genetically engineered ingredients

By Dr. Mercola

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 recent 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."

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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.

"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:



Nutritious Living®

General Mills Kix®




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

URGENT Action Items!

The Cornucopia Institute is now in URGENT need of your help, and joining the Institute and/or signing up for their newsletter will assure you get timely updates on these important issues.

At the end of November, the USDA's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will vote on a number of important issues with regards to organics, including:

1. The approval of an organic egg regulation that would require organic chicken farmers to provide a mere two square feet per bird of outdoor space. This is a huge favor to industrial producers allowing their factory farmed eggs to fall under the designation of "organic." Meanwhile, it will handicap family farms that are truly letting their birds out to pasture.

2. A vote will take place to decide whether to allow a food additive produced by Martek Biosciences in organic foods. The product is an omega 3/omega-6 oil synthesized from fermented algae and soil fungus. The oil is extracted from this biomass using hexane, a neurotoxic byproduct of gasoline refinement that is specifically banned in organics.

Cornucopia investigated Martek's patent and safety filings at the FDA, and discovered that the product also contains synthetic chemicals, stabilizers, carriers, and some of the ingredients are also genetically modified. (As it turns out, some of their products were developed by Monsanto before Martek bought the technical rights.)

"They've already added this to almost all infant formula in the United States," Kastel warns. "Algae and fungus have never been a part of the human diet, let alone children's. And now we see it in organic infant formula, and companies like Dean Foods are adding it to organic milk… it's in every single formula available on the market… except for one organic brand [Babies Only brand, which contains DHA from eggs. All other organic brands appear to contain Martek's omega oil].

3. The NOSB is also considering approving the addition of sulfites (artificial preservatives) to organic wine.  This would be the first time artificial preservatives are allowed in organics

Organics has never been under such dire threats, so I urge you to please take a moment right now to print out, sign, and mail the proxy letter provided by Cornucopia back to them ASAP for hand delivery at the rapidly approaching NOSB meeting.

Corporate lobbyists will be present, and so will the Cornucopia Institute, to counter their claims and make sure your voice, in support of organic integrity, is heard.

So, please, print out this proxy letter right now. Sign it, and mail it, as soon as possible, to:

The Cornucopia Institute

PO Box 126

Cornucopia, Wisconsin 54827

Also consider including a donation check with your letter, to support the invaluable work the Cornucopia Institute performs to protect your and your family's right to clean, wholesome, truly organic food.

As of right now, there does not appear to be any additional benefit to contacting your congressman, but if the need arises, Cornucopia will notify all their members and subscribers with the information.

I can't encourage you enough to participate in this process. It's important to recognize that you CAN make a difference! Always remember that collectively, we have the most effective power in the marketplace that can exceed the power of these multibillion dollar, multinational corporations. We can vote with our pocket books. But we also need to make our voices heard; we have to let these agencies know that we are watching, we're paying attention, and we're not going to allow this immoral, if not downright illegal, industrial favoritism to continue.