Back to School Food: The Illusion of Choice

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

Back to School Reading: The Labels

Here’s a fun family homework assignment to help you navigate through the sea of back-to-school food products. Read this summary of commonly found ingredients and label terms (2), then do some detective work on your next shopping trip. You’ll be better prepared to expose illusions of health, find “food truth" and teach your kids how to separate the tricks from real lunch-box treats.


The United States Department of Agriculture sets strict standards for organic foods (3). They must be produced without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones and antibiotics. Genetic engineering, radiation and sewage sludge are prohibited, as well. In addition, organically-raised livestock must be given 100 percent organic feed and have access to the outdoors or pasture. Any food that is sold, labeled or represented as "organic" must be certified, ensuring consumers compliance with standards. When you see an organic seal on the label, you can trust that the product is at least 95 percent organic.


Of all label claims, “natural” is one of the most misleading. Marketers of natural products want to give us the illusion that the natural label is in the same league as organic. It’s not.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “natural” meat and poultry products as those without any artificial or synthetic ingredients or added color, and only “minimally processed.” Yet these rules apply to processing procedures after slaughter; the term has no reference to how the animals were raised.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no solid legal definition for the term "natural;” however, it is restricted to products that contain no artificial or synthetic substances, such as color additives and flavors.

Ironically, in July, the FDA approved the “natural” label on high fructose corn syrup, even though most HFCS is manufactured from genetically modified corn. (4)(*)

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Extra Credit: What's "Natural" about GM Corn?

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. today is genetically engineered.(4)

Genetically modified crops present several environmental challenges. For one, the technology can’t be contained. For example, unless we isolate the corn crop, we can’t be 100% sure to prevent drift. Wind carries pollen that can contaminate fields miles away from the source.

Second, new research (7) shows genetically engineered crops require greater application of pesticides and herbicides compared to conventional crops due to the development of resistance.

Third, according to the Harvard Medical School’s report, “Biodiversity: Its Importance to Human Health,” if we disrupt biodiversity or narrow the range of crops we depend upon for food, we become more vulnerable to the loss of any one crop. (8)

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