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Corporate Crimes In the Cereal Aisle: How Companies Are Fooling You Into Thinking Their Products Are Healthy

Here's the tricks that big breakfast barons use to fool you into believing their products are pesticide and GMO-free.

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The same applies to “natural.” Labeling broccoli "natural" would offend common sense. This is the irony of marketing: On a spectrum between whole foods and processed products, the loudest “natural” claims sound from the latter end.

So why do we eaters swallow these cereal scams? The report exposes how breakfast barons intentionally blur the line between organic and natural.

The “natural” products are predominantly camouflaged in brown and green boxes, mimicking the colors of nature, creating an association between “natural” and sustainable agriculture. Packaging images such as rolling fields, grazing cows or smiling farmers give us the impression that by throwing these products in our basket we take a stance against industrial agriculture.

And the producers market themselves as family-run, small-scale business. The  Kashi Web site reads: “We are a small (after 25 years, still fewer than 70 of us) band of passionate people who believe right down to our bones that everyone has the power to make positive changes in their lives.” Conveniently absent from packages and Web site is the fact that Kellogg, the largest cereal manufacturer in the country, acquired Kashi back in 2000. Kellogg also owns Bear Naked . G eneral Mills, the second largest breakfast company in the country owns Cascadian Farm, and Back to Nature is run by Kraft Foods, a company with almost $50 million revenue in 2010.

Why does it matter? Because these companies exploit consumers' desire for conscious consumption and make us feed the system we think we are taking a stance against: Industrial agriculture.

But this is only the beginning of the scam.

The report reveals another strategy:  Bait-and-switch. Peace Cereal eloquently performed the maneuver. The brand started out organic, but in 2008 switched to cheaper conventional ingredients and adopted the “natural” label, without changing packaging, pricing or barcode. Many shoppers and retailers did not notice that the USDA label quietly disappeared from the bottom right-hand corner.

Similarly a number of brands market their names as organic by loudly promoting the few certified products on the shelf, ignoring the fact that most of their products are mere conventional ones labeled as “natural.” Annie’s Homegrown, for example, was featured in a 12-page advertisement section in the Washington Post , paid for by the Organic Trade Organization and aimed at educating consumers on the benefits of organics. Nowhere did it mention that only one of five cereal products made by Annie’s Homegrown is organic. That takes an investigation of the fine print on the box many of us don’t perform as we race through the aisle in the short minutes we often have to shop.

But if these natural cereals are nothing but cheap conventional ones in fancy dresses, one would at least expect them to be cheaper than organic products. The report, however, shows just the opposite, and suggests that, “some companies are taking advantage of consumer confusion regarding the difference between the meaningless natural label and certified organic claims.”

So next time you find yourself with a box of organic cereal in your right hand, and a box of natural cereal in your left, remember to read the fine print. Don’t be fooled by labels that are meant to sell products, not look after your health or the environment.

Ida Hartmann is a student of anthropology at the University of Copenhagen and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley.

 
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