Natural plants and GM plants are two different things

October 2011

Sunday market in Paris: all organic food
Organic vegetables. Photo by smith on Flickr
What's 'natural'?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 'natural' is “constituted by nature, existing in or by nature, not artificial”.

This would seem to preclude anything re-constituted with artificial DNA, or containing or changed by artificial materials.

Monsanto, for one, agrees that GMOs are not natural. The Company's definition of GMOs is “Plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs.” The World Health Organisation concurs that GMOs are “Organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.”

How is it, then, supermarket shelves everywhere abound with processed foods claiming to be “natural, “all-natural”, or ”100%-natural” when they are made from commodity crops universally doused in agrichemicals, and in the US, genetically transformed?

The simple answer is that regulators, such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not legally defined 'natural'. Food manufacturers can effectively make up their own definitions, and labelling is, therefore, a free-for-all.

In a world where consumers are increasingly concerned about healthful eating, food companies have every incentive to spin their 'food-like' products as natural.

However, all this may be about to change.

In June, a law suit filed in California against food-giant, ConAgra, for deceptive marketing “could make the entire industrial food complex shake in its boots” (Simon).

The case surrounds canola-, corn- and 'vegetable'-oils labelled “100% natural”, but which are up to 100% GM. To add to the 'natural' image, the message is displayed in vibrant green with the brand-name haloed by a sun and adorned by a picture of a green heart (apparently because it's cholesterol-free - like all plant oils!).

Customers are not informed of the (unnatural) GM sources, nor the (unnatural) agrichemicals, nor the (unnatural) processing aids which went into creating the '100% natural' oil. Yet ironically ConAgra's position is that “ultimately, consumers will decide what is acceptable in the marketplace based on the best science and public information available.”

One law Professor who was involved in the successful suit against McDonald's over the claim that its French fries were cooked in “100% pure vegetable oil” when they had, in fact, been pre-cooked in beef fat, pointed out that “Many state consumers protection laws permit recovery for claims which might be deceptive or misleading even if only to uneducated people, and even if the claims are technically true”. He also notes that such laws often permit law suits and large financial recoveries, even if no plaintiff can show that he suffered any actual harm.

Besides 'all-natural' products made from GMOs, the Professor gave some examples of foods misleadingly labelled, including:
  • flavour enhancers added to '100% orange juice, not from concentrate'
  • 'natural foods with added monosodium glutamate, corn syrup, citric acid, or hydrogenated oil, all of which are man-made chemicals.

Other food safety watchdogs have pointed out that US Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures on commodity grains typically show residues of seven different pesticides, including known carcinogens and neurotoxins.

As the Professor said, the number of potential law suits concerning claims against misleading 'natural' labels, and the number of potential plaintiffs for individual or class actions is unbelievably large.


To avoid unnatural food, no matter what it says on the label, the recommendation is to eat organic, and better still eat fresh organic.

Friends and relatives in the US may well be familiar with the valuable Non-GMO Project there which applies strict criteria to verify non-GM food sources. You might, however, like to make them aware that the Non-GMO Project also has a (slightly misleadingly entitled) 'enrolled' status for products which are on the path to becoming Gm-free but may still contain a substantial GM content.

  • John Banzhaf, Suit Over ConAgra's “All-Natural” Claims Could Open Food Litigation Floodgates, PR Log – Global Press Release Distribution, 29.08.11
  • Mike Adams, 'Natural' breakfast cereals loaded with pesticides and GMOs – explosive new scorecard from Cornucopia reveals all, Natural News,11.10.11
  • Michele Simon, ConAgra Sued Over GMO '100% Natural' cooking oils, Food Safety News, 24.08.11

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