Melinda Hemmelgarn

No one likes to be tricked, deceived, or taken advantage of. But when it comes to food labels, there’s a ton of eco-trickery for shoppers to navigate.

That’s where Alex Bogusky can help. He’s the creative genius and now retired Founding Partner of one of the hottest ad agencies ever: Crispin Porter + Bogusky. He knows the tricks of the trade, but he’s on our side. In fact, he’s the mastermind behind the “Truth campaign,” which helps teens see how they’re duped by the tobacco industry’s promotion ploys.

So when I learned that Bogusky was speaking at the largest organic and natural food exposition in the U.S., I jumped into a front row seat ready to learn his thoughts about how to increase organic food and farming.

First, Bogusky confessed that he’s “scared about the food system.” He knows organic agriculture is best for our environment and our children’s future. Then, he revealed his organic marketing strategy: “destroy the natural label.”

“Natural is the enemy of organic,” he explained. It dilutes the true and credible label with a cheaper imitation.

He’s right, of course. Natural labels do confuse shoppers. Many think natural is as good or even better than organic, much to the delight of the “natural” food marketer. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth.

Take a famous brand of chicken, for example. When I asked a company executive if there were any plans to offer consumers an organic bird, I was told “no.” Why should they? They were doing quite well with their “natural” line.

Now keep in mind that the natural label on meat and poultry only applies to post-slaughter conditions. It means nothing in terms of pre-slaughter animal care and feeding. Only the organic label guarantees that livestock receive no antibiotics, hormones or genetically modified (GMO), pesticide-contaminated feed.

In fact, you can bet that “all-natural, vegetarian-fed” birds eat GMO corn and/or soy. It’s the standard fare at typical feed mills for all livestock.

Here’s another example of “natural” labeling abuse: high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The FDA allows products containing the GMO corn-based sweetener to bear the word “natural.” However, you’ll never find HFCS in certified organic foods and beverages.

Ready to take a quiz?

If you want to avoid genetically modified ingredients, chemical fertilizers, synthetic hormones and pesticide residues, which food labels should you look for?

A. Organic
B. Natural
C. Local
D. Anything that’s got a green label.

Answer: A, and only A.

Now, you’re way too smart to be duped. What we need is our own Truth campaign, about the real benefits only organic delivers.

Beware of greenwashing, my friends. Here’s a cheat sheet for the “truth” on labels:
* FDA restricts the term “natural” to products that contain no artificial substances, including color additives and flavors, but allows GMOs — go figure!
* USDA says “natural” may be used on the label if the meat or poultry product does not contain any artificial ingredients or added color, and is only “minimally processed” post-slaughter. The term does not define how animals are raised or fed.
* Local has no legal standard; know your farmer and visit local farms. Ask about GMO feed, antibiotics, hormones and pesticide/herbicide use. Local organic is the gold standard.
* Certified organic is a label you can trust. It includes independent certification of verified standards. Concise legal definitions, regulations and third-party audits protect consumers. Read all about the USDA’s organic standards here.

As for Bogusky, today he heads up the “Fearless Revolution” where he creates campaigns to educate and empower consumers. We can join forces by telling our friends the truth: Organic certification is the gold standard, and natural doesn’t mean much.

~Melinda Hemmelgarn , M.S., R.D.