An organics watchdog group's criticism of a cereal company that describes its products as "all natural" is the latest in the debate about whether the term is being used to confuse consumers or simply give them more information.
The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute recently filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against Hearthside Food Solutions, makers of Peace Cereal. It claims the Eugene, Ore.-based company promotes its cereals as being made with pesticide-free ingredients when they're not.
Cornucopia and others argue it's an example of the way some food manufacturers try to attract customers who may think buying natural means they're buying organic. The organization was especially critical of Hearthside because the company previously sold organic cereal before switching to conventional ingredients.
"The sleight-of-hand of Peace Cereal, switching from organic to conventional ingredients, in a stealth-like manner, needs to be exposed." said Mark Kastel, co-founder of Cornucopia.
Telephone and e-mail messages left for Hearthside Food Solutions over several days were not returned.
The debate between natural and organic has risen in recent years with the increased popularity of organic products. To be certified organic and eligible for an organic seal, food must meet strict government guidelines overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some claim that labeling products all natural or 100 percent natural can confuse consumers who think of the terms as synonymous.
"Natural doesn't have any regulatory meaning while organic does," said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University.
According to the USDA, organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge. It also must be free from bioengineering or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must be free of antibiotics and growth hormones.
There are no such requirements for food that is labeled natural, and companies are left to determine for themselves what that means.
Douglas Karas, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration, said in an e-mail it's difficult to define the term "natural" because the food has likely been processed. Although it has not developed a definition for natural, the FDA has not objected to its use if a product does not contain added color, artificial flavor or other synthetic substances, he said.
Companies that market all-natural food said they're not trying to deceive customers but wanted to meet demands for more information about their products.
"Everybody wants to understand where it comes from and what is in it," said Aurora Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Plano, Texas-based snack maker Frito Lay.
Michigan-based Kellogg Company issued a statement that said: "We follow the FDA's guidance, which states the term 'natural' means: 'Nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected in the food.'"
Illinois-based Kraft Foods Inc. said in a statement that it reviews the use of the term natural on a case-by-case basis to "assure the use of the term is clear to consumers." Kraft also offers some organic products that carry the USDA organic seal.
Kem Green, a Des Moines mother, said she realizes there is a difference between products labeled as organic and all-natural, but she buys some of each.
"I decide whether it makes a difference to me on some things," she said while shopping at a Hy-Vee grocery store in suburban Des Moines, Iowa.
She looks for the USDA organic seal and decides on each item based on price.
"If you're going to shop organic you need to be informed and know that seal is what you're looking for and what it means," she said.
Nestle said many consumers aren't as aware of the difference between the terms.
"If you want organic then you have to look for the USDA organic seal," Nestle said. "There is no seal on natural. It's just being used as a marketing tool because their job is to sell food."
Suzanne Shelton, chief executive officer of the Shelton Group, a Tennessee-based advertising agency that specializes in marketing green and sustainable products, said research by her firm shows consumers are confused about the differences between organic and natural. She said marketing surveys done for her company show consumers tend to value the words "natural" more than "organic."
Shelton said organic products don't appeal to some people, who think of such items aimed only at upper income people.
"Organic needs a marketing campaign ... to eliminate the baggage that it's only for the upper-income groovy," Shelton said.
Kastel, the Cornucopia founder, said he simply wants food packaging to be clear so people know what they're buying.
"What a lot of consumers might not think about is, it has nothing to do with how food is grown," he said. "Crops can be sprayed with fungicides and herbicides, or pesticides. Organic has achieved quite a value in the market place and some people want to come up with the same messaging and do it on the cheap."