Natural Vs. Organic – What’s the Difference?

Being a conscious grocery shopper isn’t as easy as you might expect. There are so many different labels on everything from produce to packaged goods it can all get a little confusing. Unfortunately, many of these labels can be very misleading and are slapped on products simply as a way to increase sales. Perhaps the biggest confusion is between natural versus organic. Many people think natural and organic mean the same thing, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.


What is Natural?

Often people believe “natural foods” means the food has no artificial ingredients, pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). However, most governmental agencies do not have regulations on what “natural” foods* actually mean. In fact, even high fructose corn syrup can be considered natural so long as synthetic agents do not come into contact with it during manufacturing. Most food agencies do not have strict guidelines as even they realize the term natural difficult to define – especially for food products – since the food has probably been processed and is no longer a product of the earth. Since there are no tight regulations on the natural label, any manufacturer can simply stick it on the package.

This murky definition and guideline has caused numerous lawsuits with the biggest one and most notable one against Naked Juice. Consumers argued the parent company – PepsiCo – used synthetic ingredients to increase the vitamin content of the juice as well as fiber created by Archer Daniels Midland. While the company eventually reached a $9 million settlement and removed the all-natural label from its bottles, they denied any wrongdoing or fault done to the plaintiffs of the case.

*The exception to the rule is when used to describe meat or poultry. Natural in this case means it contains no artificial ingredients, added color and is only minimally processed.


What is Organic?

Unlike the natural label, food labeled with organic must meet very strict guidelines. Products carrying this label must abide by the following rules:

  • Contain no GMOs
  • Does not use synthetic pesticides, wood preservatives or other pesticides not on the permitted substance list.
  • Contains no antibiotics or growth hormones
  • Requires an audit trail from farm to table
  • Has cows out on pasture during pasture season

Not only do farms and food manufacturers have to pass a yearly inspection they can potentially receive unannounced visits every year as inspectors are required to check out three percent of primary producers and five percent of other operators with the organic certification. This certification process is completely voluntary, which means not all organic products in the store will be labeled as such. When looking for organic products make sure they have a label clearly identifying the name of the authorized certifier that inspected and validated the product. These labels might also bear the Canada Organic logo, but this additional identifier is optional. Only food products containing over 95% organic ingredients can bear the organic label. Others that have between 70-95% organic products will have a label identifying the exact percentage of organic ingredients. Those with less than 70 percent may only have the word organic in the ingredient list next to only the certified organic ingredients.


Why Buy Organic?

The science is mixed on whether organic food is actually a healthier for you or not. A 2007 study by Newcastle University found organic produce to be 40 percent higher in some nutrients than non-organic. This seems to back up an earlier 2003 study that found organically grown berries and corn contained 58 percent more antioxidants and 52 percent higher levels of Vitamin C. On the other hand, a 2009 review reports no significant evidence of a different in nutritional quality. With that said many people have other reasons to buy organic. Some of the most popular reasons include:

  1. Avoiding synthetic pesticides – Organic doesn’t mean farmers don’t use pesticides, it just means these pesticides are derived from natural sources instead of synthetic materials. While these synthetic pesticides are approved by governmental agencies there haven’t been long-term tests on the health effects.
  2. Preserving land – Organic farms utilize a crop rotation system versus the monoculture many commercial farms use. Crop rotation helps improve soil quality and health and manage pests, disease and weeds.
  3. Reducing pollution – Agricultural runoff is one of the biggest polluters of local water supplies. Organic farms reduce this as they use less water and fewer pesticides.


Other Confusing Labels

Besides organic and natural, the two most confusing labels for regular shoppers are “cage-free” and “pasture-raised.” Many people believe cage-free means the animals in question have space to roam. However, this is not actually the case. While cage-free animals might have better treatment than their caged counterparts, most people are actually thinking of “pasture-raised” animals. These are the ones that have outdoor access year-round with fixed housing they can go to during the nights and winter.

Another buzz word in the food department is “artisan.” For many, the word conjures up a food handcrafted by a skilled master from only the finest local ingredients. While the word might bring up these romantic images, there is no actual definition for the use of this term on food labels. While there are certainly artisan cheese makers or bread makers out there, it’s highly likely most of the items labeled as such in chain grocery stores are simple marketing gimmicks. Instead, you should go to a local farmer’s market or specialty food market to foster relationships with the store owners. There you should ask questions such as, “Who made this?” or for cheese, “Where do you source the milk?” These questions can help you determine whether the product is or isn’t artisan.


What Should You Buy?

Organic, natural, cage-free, pasture-raised and other food labels don’t necessarily mean the food is any healthier or tastier. And, more often than not, food products bearing these labels will also be much more expensive than regular items. Ultimately, you need to choose food within your budget that also aligns with your lifestyle choices. When choosing packaged food, make sure you carefully look over the ingredient list, especially on products labeled natural. Even better, avoid processed and packaged food altogether as it will be healthier and better for the environment.

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