New research from Consumer Reports published today finds that buying foods claiming to be “natural” is no guarantee that food is free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The organization tested 80 different processed foods containing corn or soy, the two most commonly grown GMO crops in the United States. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 94 percent of soybeans and 89 percent of corn grown in the U.S. are GMO, as of June 2014. They found that “virtually all” of the foods labeled “natural” contain genetically engineered ingredients.
They also found that products with no claims to being natural, organic or GMO-free also almost universally contained GMOs.
This may be no surprise to regular TreeHugger readers, because there’s no legal definition of “natural.” Manufacturers may label any food or other product as “natural” with little fear of legal repercussions. So while "natural" means pretty much nothing, these marketing claims are effective at misleading consumers. Another Consumer Reports study from earlier this year found that eight out of ten Americans believe that products that use the words “natural” don’t contain GMOs.
In light of these findings, Consumer Reports continues to advocate for a ban on the “natural” label. They are also calling for foods containing GMOs to be labeled as such, similar to laws in Europe.
Labels you can trust
There are some labels that do mean GMO-free. One of the the easiest ways to avoid GMOs is to look for organic products, plus you’ll be supporting the other benefits of organic agriculture. Another option is to look for products carrying the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal. Consumer Reports’ independent testing confirmed foods with both labels met non-GMO standards.
The researchers also tested a few products that make non-GMO claims on their packaging, although these products are not third-party certified, like Clif Builder’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar and Bob’s Red Mill Golden Corn Flour. Happily, these products also met non-GMO standards.
While there’s disagreement over whether or not there are any health consequences for consuming foods that contain GMOs, it is of concern that genetically engineered crops are linked to growing pesticide use—with negative consequences for the environment.