Who’s organic, what’s natural, and I don’t know GMO

Trying to figure out the difference can be as confusing as figuring out “Who’s on first.”

Now there may be some of you who are not familiar with the Abbott & Costello baseball skit, dubbed “Who’s on first?” If you are not, take a second to go watch it here, and have a chuckle before baseball season commences.

It’s a hilarious play on words that gets sillier as Abbott tries to explain who’s playing where, leaving Costello totally confused. 

Bernie Pacyniak

Today’s headline mimics the confusion that’s prevalent amongst consumers regarding claims and labeling. Although the bit isn’t as funny as that classic skit, consumers also seem to be playing the role of Costello when asked about organic, natural and GMO foods.

A recent Hartman Group Acumen graphic on organic, natural and GMO foods shows that there are plenty of misinformed consumers out there. For example, while more than six of 10 consumers believe that organic means the absence of pesticides, herbicides, and growth hormones, nearly half believe that same condition applies to foods claiming an all-natural pedigree.

Although one would assume that natural refers to foods that are minimally processed and are devoid of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, etc., there is no such legal definition in the United States. As a result, the USDA isn’t enamored with the term, which can be misleading.

For example, 45 percent of consumers believe a natural claim translates into an absence of GMOs, which it doesn’t.

It hasn’t reached the point where a Caveat Emptor (Let the buyer beware) footnote should be attached to a label that says natural, but it might be helpful. Certainly, the all-natural and organic landscape is still evolving, as our consumers’ perceptions and knowledge of these claims.

This evolution — and at times increased misunderstanding — has led some to call for more rigid intervention by the government.

Recently, John Upton, a self-proclaimed “science aficionado and green news junkie” who blogs about ecology and all things sundry, questioned Mars’ choice of color — green — for the nutritional information label on a Snickers bar.

He argues that the color misleads shoppers into thinking they’re buying something healthy. Although I can possibly see his point — green could be interpreted as subliminally giving permission to indulge — I find it hard to believe that anyone eating a Snickers bar thinks they’re consuming a salad.

Upton cites a Cornell University study that found green labels increase the perceived healthfulness of foods. He quotes Professor Jonathon Schuldt saying government should develop a uniform front-of-package labeling system that takes into consideration design and color of the labels.

People, let’s get a grip. What’s needed here is much more consumer education about health, nutrition, diet and activity. As a parent and a sports fan, I understand it’s sometimes necessary to “dumb down” concepts and plays. Simple usually works best.

But obesity isn’t a simple problem. And banning green from an informational nutrition label is — at best — a knee-jerk reaction to a complex issue.

Forgive me, but I think we need to raise the understanding of consumers rather than reduce them to “stoplight” purchases. Reading labels is a good thing. Comprehending them is even better. 

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