Most Foods Labeled ‘Natural’ Actually Contain GMOs, Study Shows

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/AL BEHRMAN
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/AL BEHRMAN

A recent report found that a majority of domestically packaged food tested and labeled as “natural” in fact contain a significant level of genetically modified ingredients, spurring calls for food manufacturers to be honest about what their products contain.

Independent product testing organization Consumers Reports conducted a survey of more than 80 processed foods purchased between April and July 2014 that contained corn or soy. Findings showed that foods labeled as “non-GMO” or “organic” didn’t contain genetically modified versions of the crops. Foods labeled as “natural” or without any claim about GMO content, however, contained large amounts of GMO ingredients, the group said.

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Consumers are being misled by the “natural” label, Urvashi Rangan, executive director of Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability, told Reuters.

Traits of genetically modified crops include resistance to pesticides and herbicides and what proponents consider increased nutritional value. While nearly 70 percent of American produce contains GMOs, debates about its safety have taken place since the first commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops in 1996. Food manufacturers claim that crops don’t harm the human body, but critics point to studies that link GMOs to health problems in humans and animals and environmental issues.

Tuesday’s report comes in the midst of a showdown between food manufacturers and regulatory agencies centered on how food should be labeled. Earlier this year, Vermont passed a law that require food companies to accurately label food that contains GMOs. Voters in more than 20 states — including Colorado and Oregon — will take the issue to the ballot box on Nov. 4.

Food manufacturers, however, show no sign of backing down. Last month, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a coalition of more than 300 food companies, reached out to federal government to allow food that contains GMOs to be labeled as natural. They may have a long fight ahead of them, however. A 2012 poll showed that more than 90 percent of Americans support labeling of food that contains GMOs.

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And even aside from the issue of GMOs specifically, food companies have been able to lead deceptive marketing campaigns to make their products to appear healthier than they are. “Natural” counts among of the misleading buzzwords — along with “organic,” “wholegrain,” and “gluten free” — that can trick customers into thinking they’re buying groceries with more nutritional value. Convoluted nutritional labels can also make it difficult for people to figure out what exactly is in the food they’re buying.

Earlier this year, the FDA announced that it would make updating nutritional labels one of its top priorities. The Obama administration unveiled those changes in February — which included more accurate serving sizes and adding and dropping certain nutrients from the list of vitamins and minerals with daily value percentages — although it will take several years for the new labels to hit grocery shelves.