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Working in the natural foods world, I have come to discover that the word “natural” is devoid of any meaning. Kashi is considered a natural cereal, Clif Bars are considered natural energy bars, and agave nectar is considered a natural syrup. All of these products are highly processed, with ingredients that are unidentified to the everyday consumer.
There are so many questions which need to be asked:
What exactly is brown-rice syrup, soy lecithin and barley extract?! How are protein powders created? What exactly is glucose and why is it an ingredient in this product when I only hear about it being measured in the blood levels of diabetics? What on earth is guar gum?!
Unfortunately, many consumers don’t ask these questions. Many only go so far as to read the labels these companies are feeding us, with their claims of “all-natural,” “low-sugar,” or “high protein.” When did it become commonplace to read a nutrition label rather than an ingredient label? This question can be answered with a complex set of answers, but the most important answer is this one: Consumers became uninformed when companies began to market their products to drag customers away from the ingredient label and towards their ‘marketing words.’
These companies have perfected the distraction from the ingredient label and as the natural products sector of the food industry has grown, they’ve continued to mislead the consumer. Key words like “whole-grain,” or “all-natural,” and “fat-free,” have become mainstay “connection words” between “healthy” and “products.” The Kashi brand has become brilliant at this kind of pseudo-natural marketing. Their commercials are so convincing, where a beautiful woman is walking through cocoa trees and traveling by gondola through an unidentified third-world country river to search for “the best ingredients.” First, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that this is not the way General Mills goes about looking for ingredients for their cereal. Their ingredient buyers aren’t hanging out with cocoa farmers and smiling about it. Second, I do doubt that canola oil and evaporated cane juice were chosen as quality ingredients (either the way it’s shown in the commercials or ever… really).
While all of these brands have been misconstruing consumers for years, they’ve recently embarked on a campaign of “pseudo-transparency.” I say pseudo because these companies are “transparently” listing their ingredients and providing explanations for things such as “brown-rice syrup” or “canola oil,” yet every explanation is skewed and misleading. The number one offender of this is General Mills, who has undergone a huge marketing campaign since the backlash against it’s donations to put down Proposition 37.
If you look on the Kashi website, you’ll immediately find that they’re dedicating themselves to “Real Food Rules.” Kashi claims itself to be “all-natural,” which, of course, no longer has any meaning because of such campaign. Their newest addition is the “Kashi Ingredient Decoder” which lists ingredients that Kashi uses that might be questionable, like casein, chicory root fiber, canola oil and fractionated oils. Each of their definitions are problematic.
As a response to the question, “What is Chicory Root Fiber?” Kashi gives this misleading answer: “This is used to hold different ingredients together and also contains the naturally occurring fiber inulin.” I’m confused as to how this answers what chicory foot fiber is, rather than what it does. Sourced from the chicory root, inulin (or chicory root fiber) is not a real-food. It’s a supplement or additive, used as a fiber source for many processed cereals and granola bars. The chicory root fiber is produced by mixing dried, ground chicory root with water, then removing the insoluble fraction by filtration and centrifugation.” (Source) – I won’t even begin to discuss canola oil or other processed oils. You can watch this video to find out more.
Kashi is joined by it’s sister company, Larabar, in providing potentially misleading answers to consumers. Larabar recently released their new “ALT-bar,” which is a play-off their original bar, but with the addition of protein (among other stuff). When looking at one of these bars, you get to see the ingredients as a picture. Yet, it’s misleading and comical. For brown rice syrup, they include a photo of brown rice. As a definition in the FAQ, they say that
“Brown rice syrup, also known as “rice syrup,” is a natural sweetener that comes from the starch of brown rice. The combination of cooked rice and natural enzymes allows the starches to break down to produce a sweetened liquid. The liquid is then filtered and excess water is evaporated to thicken it. Brown rice syrup is used in über® as a naturally sweetened binder to hold the ingredients together and keep the bar firm.”(via Larabar.com)
There isn’t any mention of how these “natural enzymes” come off of barley. Or that those who desire a gluten-free brown rice syrup will have to make it with the enzymes of fungus. I don’t know which one is better: barley or fungus? Or is the sticky brown goop derived from the process of excess heat supposed to be construed as natural? How can companies label something that is so processed, as “natural.” It’s mind-blowing. Natural means nothing.
For their new Alt-bar, the questions become even more misleading. To describe their protein source, they list that the protein is from a vegetable. Peas are legumes. (It’s principle – if you are providing information, don’t mislead your consumers). To the question, “How it’s made?” They list that pea protein comes from peas, after the peas are ground into a flour and then the protein can be separated – wait…. but how is it separated? Anyone who doesn’t research that won’t ever know, so I’ll tell you: The majority of protein powders are used making hexane gas, the best quality ones are used with enzymes. Soy and Whey proteins are the main culprits, but without knowing the source of the protein, we cannot identify the source. I’d like them to say what pea protein they’re using.
These two examples of Kashi and Lara aren’t easy ones to point out, as their marketing campaigns are stellar in convincing consumers that they’re dedicated to real food, with natural ingredients. Sure, they’ve made an effort to become transparent, but I find it troubling that there is no true accountability for “natural foods.”
A final example is of the energy bar world. Enter a grocery store and find the energy bar aisle. There are hundreds on the wall. Of those hundreds, the majority of energy bar companies claim “natural” but also add syrups, starches, and other sweeteners. They’ll use glucose or soy lecithin, sugar alcohol or soy isolates. Yet, this is what the natural foods world has become. Natural grocery stores have aided and abetted these companies and the consumers are the innocent enablers. While I’m very up-in-arms about accountability, these companies will still continue to make their profits because the industry has allowed them to succeed through the misconstruction of the word “natural.” Therefore, it no longer means anything.
I’m resigned, but I’ll continue to hold my own food choices accountable. I hope you will, too.
When Leslie isn’t helping us understand how to keep safe in a world without proper labeling requirements, she’s busy helping create one of our favorite truly Organic, raw food products. Follow us for more from Leslie, the Organic Foods Insider.