You’re probably familiar with the idea of greenwashing—when companies use deceptive labels and marketing to make consumers think their products are environmentally friendly, when they really aren’t. But a new term has popped up on the interwebs, “genewashing” and it refers to companies that use deceptive labeling to make consumers think their products don’t contain GMOs.
The website Naturally Savvy claims to have coined the term “genewashing,” but the idea isn’t new. Since the term “natural” isn’t regulated on U.S. food labels, big food producers have been using it to mean a whole host of things that many of us wouldn’t particularly agree are natural.
Many consumers falsely believe that foods labeled “natural” actually are all-natural, containing no artificial ingredients. And, as understanding and public awareness of GMOs increases, many consumers may also believe that foods labled “natural” do not contain GMOs.
But that’s not the case. Since the term isn’t currently regulated, companies can paste the word all over their labels. Some foods labeled natural are, but many clearly aren’t, and savvy consumers have started taking companies to court over what they believe are misleading claims.
Lawsuits have been brought against Frito-Lay for natural claims on Sun Chips and Tostitos, PepsiCo for the word natural on Naked Juice labels, the makers of Truvia “natural” sweetener, and, most recently, Pepperidge Farms for their ubiquitous Goldfish crackers, among others. Consumers are wising up about the misleading use of the term and demanding that companies be more judicious about what they’re calling natural.
According to the World Health Organization, genetically modified foods are defined as foods not occuring naturally, so its hard to see how companies can claim their foods are natural if they contain GMOs. But until labeling laws change to legally define the term natural, this genewashing will continue.
And it’s not confined to just one word. Products have begun showing up on shelves with the words “Non-GMO” plastered across the front; but read the label carefully, and you’ll see that only some of the ingredients are non-GMO. These Snikiddy Eat Your Vegetables chips proudly claim that they are “made with Non-GMO vegetables, grains, and oil,” but right next to the non-GMO ingredients you’ll find canola oil, maltodextrin, and sugar—all of which are almost certainly GMOs.
So what’s an educated consumer to do? Read your labels carefully, and know which ingredients are most likely to be GMO. Here are our top five—and some of the other names they go by:
1. Soy: soy flour, lecithin, soy protein isolates and concentrates (protein shakes), vitamin E supplements, soy oil
2. Corn: corn flour, corn starch, corn oil, corn sweeteners, syrups
3. Canola: canola oil, oil blends
4. Sugar Beets: sugar, any product that doesn’t specify “cane sugar”
5. Aspartame: artificial sweetener
And this doesn’t even cover animal products: conventionally raised animals are almost certainly fed GMO alfalfa, soy or corn, and so any animal product, including dairy, that isn’t specifically organic could contain GMOs.
Look for the Non-GMO Project’s certification and certified organic labels to clear up confusion, or get ready to dig out your dictionary when reading labels.