Behind The Label: The Kashi Controversy

After a photo of a grocery store note went viral, the discussion about food marketed as “natural” got a lot more heated.

Natural cereal brand Kashi made headlines in recent weeks after information about the company’s corporate ownership and use of genetically modified and pesticide-containing ingredients went viral in the social media space. The firestorm was ignited by a photograph, taken of a note posted in a Rhode Island natural foods store explaining why the store had pulled Kashi products from its shelves. Since the image has made the rounds on the internet, customers and food bloggers have been up in arms, posting nasty messages on Kashi’s Facebook page and writing impassioned editorials expressing their disappointment and betrayal.

It’s all very dramatic, but it’s raised some important discussions on the marketing of natural products and the politics of genetically modified foods. One also has to wonder how much of the information circulating on the internet about the subject is valid, how much is exaggerated, and how much is downright false. In this week’s Behind the Label, we take a look at the facts behind the recent Kashi controversy.

The Good

Kashi was founded in 1984 by Phil and Gayle Tauber, a health-conscious couple living in La Jolla, California, who were passionate about whole-grain nutrition. The company’s first cereal, Kashi Breakfast Pilaf, contained a blend of seven whole grains and sesame, and its subsequent offerings included the same basic ingredients throughout a variety of natural breakfast foods. With its small line-up of products, Kashi grew slowly and steadily through the 1980s and 1990s, until the Kellogg Company purchased Kashi in 2000. The acquisition propelled Kashi’s distribution forward, turning it into a household name.

Today, Kashi continues to be “independently operated” in La Jolla (though we’re still not quite sure what that means when you’re owned by a corporation). The product line has grown to include snack bars, crackers, cookies, waffles, and frozen entrees, all stamped with words like “all natural” and “nutritious.” While Kashi does not specifically claim to use organic ingredients in all of its products, the company has taken steps toward greater supply chain sustainability, like releasing a handful of USDA certified organic products and working with the Non-GMO Project to verify the organic ingredients of seven of its cereals.

And just on Monday, in response to the consumer outrage of the past few weeks, Kashi general manager David DeSouza announced the Kashi Commitment, which stated that all new Kashi foods will be Non-GMO Project Verified and contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients, starting in 2015. The announcement also promised that all existing GoLean® Cereals and Chewy Granola Bars — the company’s most popular products — will be Non-GMO Project Certified by the end of 2014.

The Bad

The man behind the now-infamous note is John Wood, who owns The Green Grocer in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Wood told USA Today that he decided to remove Kashi products from his shelves after reading a report on natural cereals from the Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group for family-scale farming.

The report, called “Cereal Crimes: How ‘Natural’ Claims Deceive Consumers and Undermine the Organic Label,” explores the difference between organic products and “so-called natural” ones, which the organization says tend to contain ingredients that are genetically modified and/or contain harmful pesticides. The report called out Kashi for its use of hexane-extracted soy protein, which is immersed in a bath of more than 50 percent n-hexane, a known neurotoxin. The report also included the findings of a GMO Mon 40-3-2 test on the soy ingredients contained in Kashi’s GoLean® cereal, which were shown to be 100 percent genetically modified.

Responding to the reaction generated from the note and report, general manager DeSouza told USA Today that Kashi had done nothing wrong, since the FDA does not regulate the term “natural.” The company also released a video from a Kashi team member and nutritionist, which aimed to dispel the “inaccurate information being circulated online about Kashi ingredients.” The response passed the buck for Kashi’s GMO usage to the fact that more than 80 percent of crops being grown in the United States are grown using GMOs and suggested that blame can be assigned to “factors outside our control,” like pollen drift and practices in agricultural storage, handling, and shipping.

The Cornucopia Institute immediately snapped back with a news item criticizing the video response, particular where the nutritionist calls Cornucopia’s information “scientifically inaccurate and misleading because it was not based on actual testing of Kashi products.”

“This characterization of our work by Kashi is blatantly false,” said Will Fantle, Cornucopia’s Research Director. “We purchased a readily available box of Kashi’s GoLean® cereal from a Whole Foods store. We then sent a sample to an accredited national lab for testing, finding that the soy in the natural cereal was 100% GMO.”

How dangerous are these findings, exactly? According to Cornucopia, studies have found health hazards and toxic effects associated with genetically modified soy, which “suggest” that there might be an effect on human health. However, they admit that the possibility has not been properly investigated. As for whether hexane-extracted soy protein is safe for consumption, the Soyfoods Association of North America says that it is because virtually all of the hexane is removed from the soybeans before they are processed. The FDA also recognizes hexane solvent extraction as a safe processing method, so long as residue levels don’t exceed a specified amount.

That information may not sway organic food purists, but it might comfort regular consumers who have been spooked by media reports into thinking that Kashi products have extremely high levels of poisonous toxins.

The Questionable

One of the most significant byproducts of the recent Kashi controversy is the resulting discussion, with consumers questioning what companies mean when they use words like “natural.” As DeSouza pointed out, the FDA doesn’t regulate this sort of language, so each company is left to define for themselves – and their customers – what their standards are. Kashi, for instance, defines natural as “food that’s minimally processed, made with no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or sweeteners.” Only their certified organic and Non-GMO Project Verified products claim to use organic ingredients that haven’t been genetically modified.

Another big shocker for many Kashi customers was the revelation that the company, which on its website represents itself as a small business – “after 25 years, still fewer than 70 of us” – is actually owned by Kellogg, the mega-corporation behind fellow cereal aisle brands like Froot Loops, Corn Pops, and Frosted Mini-Wheats. Nowhere on Kashi’s packaging is the Kellogg’s logo found, nor is Kashi listed on the Kellogg Company’s online list of brands. It’s obvious that both parties want to maintain the psychological distance that exists between Kashi and its high-fructose-corn-syrup-heavy sister brands on the supermarket shelf.

So what could have prevented the consumer outrage and Kashi’s extensive crisis management response? On the industry’s part, further definition of and regulations around the marketing of natural products. On Kashi’s and Kellogg’s part, greater transparency about their business relationship and practices. And on the customers’ part, due diligence and a more critical approach toward the products they choose to consume.

Image: New Hope 360, Mayce Hodges

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.