Kashi cereal's 'natural' claims stir anger

ByABC News
April 29, 2012, 7:26 AM

— -- Kellogg's is facing anger on social media sites because of complaints that its popular Kashi brand of cold cereals doesn't live up to the company's "natural" billing on advertisements and box covers.

The controversy went viral a week ago after a Rhode Island grocer tacked a note to one of his store shelves, telling customers he wouldn't sell the cereal because he found out the brand used genetically engineered, non-organic ingredients. Photos of the note began popping up on Facebook pages and food blogs as some consumers claimed Kellogg's was misrepresenting its cereal.

Kashi has done nothing wrong, says David Desouza, Kashi general manager. "The FDA has chosen not to regulate the term 'natural.'" The company defines natural as "food that's minimally processed, made with no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or sweeteners."

Nevertheless, some consumers say they felt duped into believing the cereal was organic and free from genetically modified ingredients because of Kellogg's use of the word on packaging and its website.

They've taken to the digital streets with their anger, posting on Kashi's own Facebook page, as well as the pages of several organic cereal makers and organic stores. News media have begun picking up the story.

Kellogg's is not misleading people, says Barbara Haumann of the Organic Trade Association in Brattleboro, Vt. Consumers "are totally confused" and don't understand that the only way to get organic food it to buy organic, she says.

The shelf tag wasn't meant "to stir up trouble or cause controversy," says John Wood, owner of The Green Grocer, in Portsmouth, R.I. Wood is the grocer who refused to sell the cereal and posted the note in his store to customers.

He made the decision to remove Kashi after reading a report about what "natural" means on the cereal aisle by The Cornucopia Institute, an organic and agriculture policy group.

Many posters on the Kashi site seemed especially angry about the presence of genetically engineered soy in some of its cereals. One wrote that by marketing its products as whole foods and healthy, but choosing genetically engineered soybeans as an ingredient, the company had destroyed people's trust in its product.

Desouza says consumers who want "clear and specific guidance" about genetically modified ingredients can look to U.S. organic regulations, which prohibit their use.

Kellogg's got itself into trouble by "not being entirely transparent," says Roger Nyhus, president of Nyhus Communications in Seattle. He sees a trend among some companies "of fudging language to allay consumer concerns and jump on the green bandwagon, and I think it's starting to backfire."

Consumers drawn to a "natural" marketing message could also have their anger fueled by a sense that they were buying from a "small, pure" company. "They disdain large corporate entities" and now they find that Kashi "is in fact part of this big, multinational conglomerate," says Pam Danziger, a marketing expert with Unity Marketing in Stevens, Pa.

Kashi's Desouza says that the company has launched an initiative to ensure that by the beginning of 2015 at least half of new Kashi products will "contain at least 70% USDA organic certified ingredients."