Consumer Reports: Consumers Unwittingly Equate "Natural" with No GMOs

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Recent Survey Finds 64 Percent of People Think “Natural” Means No GMOs; Virtually All Samples of Tested Products with Only “Natural” Label Contained Substantial Levels of GMOs; Organization Calls for Mandatory Labeling of GMOs in Food, and a Ban on the “Natural” Label

Consumer Reports tested a wide variety of packaged-food items containing corn or soy – and found that genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are present in many common products including breakfast cereals, chips, and infant formula. Some carry labels like “natural,” suggesting that they don’t have these controversial ingredients.

A recent survey of 1,000 American adults conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center showed that a majority of people – 64 percent – mistakenly equate “natural” with no GMOs. The same survey also showed that nearly three-quarters of all Americans are seeking foods produced without genetically modified organisms.

“Foods that are frozen, made from concentrate or homogenized are all required to be labeled. Why shouldn’t products containing GMOs also be labeled?” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives. “Shoppers are being misled when they buy products labeled 'natural' given their expectation that they are getting food that contain no GMOs.”

The GMO report is available at ConsumerReports.org.

Consumer Reports wanted to see how many foods contain GMOs, and whether or not people could rely on packaging claims that suggest there are no GMOs in certain products. The organization bought more than 80 different processed foods containing corn or soy, two of the most widely grown genetically engineered crops in the U.S. It tested at least two samples of each product – each sample from a different lot – to measure GMO content. Finally, it compared the test findings with product claims to determine which ones were valid, and which ones were not. The products were purchased between April and July 2014.

In order for a product to qualify as non-GMO it had to have no more than 0.9 percent genetically modified corn or soy. In the European Union, ingredients that are greater than 0.9 percent GMO must be labeled as having GMOs.

Highlights of the Findings: What This Means for Consumers

  •     Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified. These two labels are independently certified. All of the products CR tested with these labels qualified as non-GMO. “Organic” claims indicate that a third party has certified that the product complies with federal regulations, which forbids the use of GMOs in organic. And many of the products labeled “organic” also make some kind of non-GMO claim on their packaging. The Non-GMO Project Verified label certifies manufacturers' products through third-party testing.
  •     Uncertified non-GMO claims. These claims made by the manufacturer, which may include the words "No GMO" or "Non-GMO," have no standard definition and don’t require independent verification. Even so, most of the products CR tested that made an uncertified non-GMO claim met non-GMO standards.
  •     No Claim Related to GMO. Nearly all of the samples CR tested of the products that did not make any non-GMO related claim on the package did, in fact, contain substantial amounts of genetically modified corn or soy.
  •     Natural label. Virtually all of the samples CR tested of products that made only a "natural" claim had a substantial amount of genetically modified organisms. The government does not have a formal definition for the “natural” label on processed foods.

“Until GMO labeling becomes mandatory, consumers who want to avoid GMOs should look for “organic” or “Non-GMO Project Verified” labels. We also believe that since consumers are being misled by the “natural” label: it is yet one more reason “natural” should be banned on food,” said Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., Executive Director, Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability.

Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, supports mandatory labeling of GMOs. Vermont recently passed legislation requiring GMO labeling, and voting will begin on labeling ballot initiatives in Oregon and Colorado in a few weeks.

Because CR’s tests represented only a small slice of the market, the organization can’t draw conclusions about all products containing corn or soy, or about every product for a given brand. But until genetically modified organism labeling becomes mandatory, the test results can help consumers decode the meaning behind the claims seen on grocery store shelves.

Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website and other publications. Its advocacy division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

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OCTOBER 2014
© 2014 Consumer Reports. The material above is intended for legitimate news entities only; it may not be used for advertising or promotional purposes. Consumer Reports® is an expert, independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves. We accept no advertising and pay for all the products we test. We are not beholden to any commercial interest. Our income is derived from the sale of Consumer Reports®, ConsumerReports.org® and our other publications and information products, services, fees, and noncommercial contributions and grants. Our Ratings and reports are intended solely for the use of our readers. Neither the Ratings nor the reports may be used in advertising or for any other commercial purpose without our permission. Consumer Reports will take all steps open to it to prevent commercial use of its materials, its name, or the name of Consumer Reports®.

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Consumer Reports/ ShopSmart
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