How to Stay Clean of the Green Machine

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

People like the color green. We perceive it as fresh, natural, and "good" for our health and environment. However, in a world of eco-marketing, green is also the new black. It's fashionable, hip, and trendy.

Sometimes, green is nothing more than the color of money. That's when we call it "greenwashing."

Think of greenwashing like whitewashing, only with a green brush. It's the act of misleading consumers about the environmental practices or benefits of a company or their products.

No one likes to be tricked, duped, or deceived. So in our search for food truth, let's debunk some of the most popular green myths in the marketplace, starting with my number one pet peeve: the "natural" label.

Natural = "not much"

National surveys reveal that many consumers trust the "natural" label. They tend to think "natural" and "organic" mean the same thing, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

Of all label claims, "natural" is the most confusing and misleading. Because while there are strict legal regulations and inspections governing the "organic" label, few if any protections exist for "natural." (4,5)

For example, the FDA restricts the term "natural" to products that contain no artificial or synthetic substances, such as color additives and flavors. But FDA allows the "natural" label on products containing GMOs, or genetically engineered ingredients, such as soft drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, which is made from genetically engineered corn.

USDA, the agency that regulates meat and poultry products, says "natural" may be used on the label if the product does not contain any artificial ingredients or added color, and is only "minimally processed." (5)

However, the USDA's "natural" label only applies to meat and poultry products after slaughter. In other words, the "natural" label has no reference to how the animals are raised or fed.

In fact, meat and poultry labeled "natural" most likely came from animals raised on conventional feed, most commonly GMO corn and soy.

Here's an example of an ad from my local "natural" grocery store: "On sale: Natural whole chicken, free-range, 100% vegetarian fed." Sounds good, right?

I called the producer to inquire about the birds' diets, and learned that they ate genetically engineered (GMO) corn and soy. As for the "free range" label, it simply indicates that that the birds have an option to go outside; it's not a term that is regulated by the USDA. (3,4)

Take home message: If you want to avoid consuming genetically engineered ingredients, either directly or indirectly, then choose foods with the "organic" label. What's more, meat, poultry and dairy labeled "organic" gives us legal assurance that the animals have not been given antibiotics or growth hormones, and only consumed organic, non-GMO feed, free of pesticide residues, chemical fertilizers, and sewage sludge. (5)

Alex Bogusky, the creative genius behind Crispin Porter + Bogusky, one of the most successful ad agencies ever, said it best: "Natural is the enemy of organic. It dilutes the true and credible label with a cheaper imitation." (6)

Beware: pretty packages can be an illusion

The old adage about not judging a book by its cover applies to food packages as well. Manufacturers use the color green, old-fashioned print styles, plus pictures of farmers, animals, and crops on their packages to suggest their products come from bucolic family farms. (3)

Even my own husband was fooled by package imagery. Last week he came home with a box of "natural" cereal. The earthy brown colors with bright green leaves tricked him into thinking he was buying an organic product, but the USDA Organic seal was nowhere to be found.

It pays to look for the USDA organic seal, because it can only be used on products containing 95% or more organic content. (5)

Local vs. Organic?

" Local" has no legal standard. And just being "local" is no guarantee that the farmer is not using harmful pesticides and chemical fertilizers that will end up in your local watershed.

Get to know the farmers who produce your food; visit their farms, and ask questions about GMO feed, antibiotics, hormones and which pesticides they use. Best yet: buy from local farmers who take the extra steps to become certified organic. Local and organic is the gold standard.

Remember: certified organic is a label we can trust. It includes independent certification of verified standards. Concise legal definitions, regulations and third-party audits protect consumers.

If we're truly green, we'll understand and live by the ecological principle that everything is connected. How we farm and eat affects our beautiful planet and the health of all living things today and for generations to come.

Resources and References

  1.  The Greenwashing Index
  2. The Six Sins of Greenwashing. Terra Choice Environmental Marketing, Inc.
  3. The Prevention Institute, “Food Marketers Greenwash Junk Food”
  4. Consumers Union. Greener Choices, Eco-labels. See video, “From Fables to Labels”
  5. USDA National Organic Program, Agricultural Marketing Service. See: Consumer Information.
  6. Alex Bogusky, Expo West, March 2011.


"Natural is the enemy of organic. It dilutes the true and credible label with a cheaper imitation."
—Alex Bogusky 


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