What does the word "natural" mean to you?
When it comes to meat, the USDA defines "natural" as a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.
That USDA definition on meat and poultry helps me make buying decisions. But when it comes to the word "natural" appearing on any other foods, the USDA has no standardized meaning. And that can be confusing for consumers.
For those food items, "natural" is simply a marketing tool, appealing to consumers hoping to purchase a minimally processed food free of "unnatural" ingredients like genetically engineered seed and pesticides. I expect those "naturally" labeled products also to be free of artificial colors or flavors and preservatives.
The Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit educational organization that works for sustainable, organic agriculture recently took an in-depth look at America's breakfast cereals, some liberally using the word "natural" to describe its products, and found some interesting things.
Cornucopia learned that there's a world of difference between a 100-precent organic breakfast cereal and one simply labeled "natural." An organic label means that ingredients are certified as grown and processed without the use of genetically engineered organisms, toxic pesticides, fumigants and solvents. "Natural" has no such requirements.
If you want a healthy, truly "natural" cereal from companies that are corporately committed to organics and agricultural sustainability consider Cornucopia's highest-rated, 100-percent organic cereals: Ambrosial's granola, Country Choice Organic's oat and multigrain cereals, Farm to Table's oatmeal, Go Raw's granola, Grandy Oats' oat cereal, Great River Organic Milling's cereal and granola, Laughing Giraffe Organics's granola, Lydia's Organics' granola, Nature's Path granola and cereal, Terra's Farm's granola and Two Moms in the Raw cereals and granolas and Cascadian Farm, EcoPlanet, Grawnola, Green Barn Organics, Food for Life and Erewhon cereals and granolas.
Cereal companies with a limited amount of organic cereals (read the labels carefully) were ranked next and these included Grizzlie's Brand, New England Naturals, Weetabix, Annie's Homegrown, Arrowhead Mills, Health Valley, Bob's Red Mill, Dorset Cereals, Barbara's Bakery, Three Sisters and Kashi.
At the bottom of Cornucopia's list (listed by ranking) were "natural" cereals that were not certified organic: Cream of the West, Ruth's Hemp Foods, Skinners, Uncle Sam, Alpen brand muesli, Mother's, Peace Cereal, Sweet Home Farm, Bakery on Main, Udi's Granola, Bear Naked, General Mills, Nutritious Living, Mom's Best, OLA! and Post Natural.
Convinced organic cereal's a good idea, but concerned about organic cereal's cost?
Cornucopia's analysis of "natural" versus "organic" cereal prices surprisingly determined that "natural" cereals made with conventional ingredients were almost always priced higher than equivalent organic products. Who knew healthy could also be budget friendly?
Try this recipe: Want to make your own healthy granola, where you select all the ingredients? Gwen Howard, a friend's mother, who recently passed away at 94½, made this granola for her and her husband (he's still alive). Once you taste this, you may never go back to commercial granola again.
I cut the added oil in half, but percent of calories from fat still exceeds 30 percent. Add fat-free milk and no-fat-added toast to your breakfast and your total calories from fat will come in below the 30 percent threshold.
• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.