The word “natural” is a favorite among food marketers. Unfortunately, the term is totally meaningless and, according to a recent report, often deceptive.

The Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on sustainable and organic farming, released a report last month titled “Cereal Crimes: How ‘Natural’ Claims Deceive Consumers and Undermine the Organic Label — A Look Down the Cereal and Granola Aisle.”

Citing research that shows consumers demonstrate an affinity for the word “natural” over “organic” (which is a legal term backed by third-party certification), the report outlines how cereal marketers use this knowledge to their advantage while shortchanging consumers.

The report points out that certified organic cereals must be free from genetically modified ingredients, synthetic pesticides and petrochemical-based processing techniques. However, cereals claiming to be natural can and often do use “dangerous pesticides, genetically engineered crops, fumigants, solvents and toxic processing aids.”

One surprising finding of the study is that cereals produced using cheaper conventional ingredients are often more expensive than organic competitors. One of the few companies praised in the report is Maine granola maker Grandy Oats.

The report states: “Wholesale prices and retail prices in various stores reveal that Grandy Oats, a relatively small, 100 percent organic, independent company in Maine, offers its organic granola at lower prices than agribusiness giant Kellogg Company’s Bear Naked conventional granola.

“The presumably tremendous increased profit margin by Kellogg, which enjoys both lower costs of raw materials for its conventional ingredients and economies of sale in manufacturing and distribution, could easily be interpreted as price gouging.”

Kellogg did not respond to requests for comment.

“It’s nice when you get good PR for being honest,” said Aaron Anker, chief granola officer for Brownfield-based Grandy Oats. “We’ve always tried to have integrity. It’s not just the ingredients, but even the price we charge.”

Anker said while many granola companies have switched to using one-quarter cup as the serving size on the nutrition label to make their products appear to be lower in calories, Grandy Oats has stuck with the half-cup size.

“We realized one-quarter cup wasn’t an honest serving size,” Anker said. “We feel we need to be honest with our customers.”

Too bad more cereal companies don’t take the same approach.

The report calls attention to Peace Cereal, which is owned by Hearthside Food Solutions. The brand started out as an all-organic cereal company, but in 2008 Peace Cereal switched to less expensive, non-organic ingredients without lowering its prices, alerting retailers or changing its bar code. Hearthside Food Solutions also did not respond to requests for comment in this article.

The report also shows that many previously organic brands have begun using conventionally grown ingredients. For example, 100 percent of Annie’s Homegrown products were certified organic in 2007. Today, only 20 percent contain organic ingredients. Likewise, Barbara’s Bakery produced 60 percent of its products using organic ingredients in 2007. Today, only 20 percent of its products use organic ingredients.

“I personally think it’s because when a lot of these companies become owned by other entities or publicly traded, they become beholden to investors rather than core values,” Anker said.

Most of the brands cited in the report can be found in health food stores or in the health food sections of conventional grocery stores. One thing health food shoppers might assume is that the products they buy are free from genetically modified ingredients. The report shows this isn’t always the case.

Cornucopia contracted with a third party to conduct independent testing to determine whether or not various cereals contained transgenic ingredients. Bear Naked, Nature’s Path, Peace Cereal and Annie’s Homegrown all contained less than 1 percent GMO ingredients. However, testing revealed that Mother’s Bumpers contain 28 percent GMO corn; Barbara’s Bakery Puffins contain 55 percent GMO corn; Kix Corn Puffs contain 56 percent GMO corn; Whole Foods Market 365 Corn Flakes contain 57 percent GMO corn; Nutritious Living Hi-Lo contains 85 percent GMO soy; and Kashi Go Lean contains 100 percent GMO soy.

Kashi spokesperson Jeff Johnson said the company, which is owned by Kellogg, is beginning to test its products for GMO ingredients.

“We are taking a phased approach and will share updates as our foods are verified through our product pages on,” Johnson said in an email statement.

Whole Foods Market stopped making its non-organic corn flakes in June.

“Because it is Whole Foods Market’s preference to source organic grocery products, the conventional product was discontinued and replaced with organic cereal,” spokesperson Heather McCready said in a statement.

The only way to guarantee that a product is free from genetically modifed ingredients is to buy certified organic.

Shoppers are apparently changing their buying habits in reaction to the report.

“We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of emails from consumers who said they’ve trusted these companies and are really disturbed” by the report, said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute.

Those who have emailed the organization have said they will now only buy organic cereals. In addition, Kastel said he’s heard from some of the companies mentioned in the report that said they plan to “respond in some way.”

“When a company intentionally misleads people consumers really feel betrayed,” Kastel said.

On the flipside, when a company sticks to values shared by shoppers, the results show up in the bottom line.

Case in point: Grandy Oats’ Anker reports that the company is on track to grow 20 percent this year.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila