Thanks to an increasing awareness of where food comes from and its impact on our health, shoppers are becoming more discriminating, especially when it comes to processed foods. In response, many product manufacturers, fearful of losing customers, are slapping the “natural” label on foods that are anything but.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has pretty much punted on the matter, but acknowledges the challenge. “It is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth,” the agency says. Instead, the agency only tells us what it does not consider natural—added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

This leaves plenty of leeway for manufacturers to fool consumers.

A recent report from the Cornucopia Institute called “Cereal Crimes” shows how some cereal companies are deceiving shoppers by not disclosing the use of pesticides, genetically modified organisms, toxic solvents, and other potentially dangerous inputs in their “natural” brands.

Consumer confusion on "natural"

Various polls show that consumers mistakenly believe that “natural” means the product to be free of GMOs and pesticides, practices that of course organic manufacturers are barred from using.

See: Should "natural" be held to the same standards as organic?

The Cornucopia report argues that such deceptive practices undercut organic brands because the natural products cost less. However, some natural brands are actually priced higher than their organic counterparts (one 35 percent more), gouging customers by taking advantage of their interest in healthy foods.

Cornucopia says that cereal marketers benefit from a widespread confusion between “organic” and “natural” and concludes, “Companies marketing ‘natural’ products merely pay lip service to sustainability and eco-friendliness, while undercutting truly committed organic companies.” No surprise that it’s the larger companies undercutting the smaller ones. (Examples of food giants named in the report are Kellogg, Kraft, and PepsiCo.)

Sadly, probably because of higher costs, some organic brands have even downshifted and instead use the meaningless natural label. Cornucopia decries such companies for capitalizing on their organic reputations while benefiting from cheaper ingredients.

But the food industry may not be able to keep this up much longer.