A public education campaign was launched this week to highlight the benefits of organic food and to help consumers understand the difference between products labeled organic and those that are labeled as “natural.”

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Natural labels have been added to everything from processed snacks to cooking oils made from GMOs to ice cream made from cows injected with growth hormones.

“Foods made with the use of toxic persistent pesticides and even genetically engineered (GE) ingredients are being labeled as natural,” said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farm. “Only organic guarantees that food is produced without the use of toxic persistent pesticides, hormones, antibiotics or genetically engineered ingredients. Only organic gives you complete piece of mind.”

The public education campaign will include videos to help consumers understand the how the “natural” label can be used to confuse shoppers. The videos were developed by the recently launched agency Humanaut with help from advertising icon Alex Bogusky.

Organic foods are subject to stringent environment and animal welfare standards enforced by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA discourage companies from including “natural” claims on processed foods containing synthetic or artificial ingredients, there is no official definition of “natural” and little enforcement of misleading claims.

“Only organic is produced in a way that Mother Nature would recognize as natural,” said Sarah Bird, chief marketing officer for Annie’s, Inc. “Many products that claim to be ‘natural’ are made with ingredients you couldn’t find in nature—including artificial flavors or colors, synthetic preservatives, high fructose corn syrup and genetically engineered ingredients.” 

Natural claims have been added to everything from cooking oils made from genetically engineered crops to ice cream made from cows pumped full of growth hormones.

“Many consumers mistakenly believe that foods labeled as ‘natural’ are better than food that has been certified as organic,” said Lewis Goldstein, vice president of brand marketing at Organic Valley. “Organic food starts with organic farming, from the ground up. Only organic is subject to tough, enforceable standards created by the USDA designed to insure that our families can count on their food being produced in ways that protect their health, the environment and the welfare of farm animals.”

The public education campaign is being launched by Organic Voices, and is supported by organic companies and other companies, including AllergyKids, Annie’s, Earthbound, Happy Family, INFRA, Late July, Nature’s Path, NCGA, Organic Valley, Rudi’s, and Stonyfield.

“Many products carry the ‘natural’ claim when there is nothing natural about them,” said Darren Mahaffy, vice president of marketing at Nature’s Path Foods. “As a result, many consumers are buying products they think are the same—or even better—for their families and the environment than organic.”

A recent survey found that consumers commonly believe that “natural” foods do not contain artificial ingredients.

“The public needs new tools to understand the benefits of organic and to be able to distinguish between organic foods and all other unverified claims,” said Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.

Visit EcoWatch’s FOOD and GMO pages for more related news on these topics.

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