Is organic natural, or natural organic?

The wide variety of mouth-watering fresh fruit and vegetables this time of year is astounding.  The produce sections in grocery stores are overflowing with colorful, ripe options that are attractive to our eyes and palettes, and farm stands and markets surround us, typically offering just-picked alternatives and luscious offerings that remind us why we love living in New England. But whether you purchase your fresh zucchini, peaches, corn or lettuce off the back of a pickup truck or at your local supermarket, it’s easy to get befuddled by signs and labels proclaiming “natural,” “organic,” “non-GMO” and related labels, constant reminders that we’re very trusting when it comes to our food sources and what we put into our bodies.

Natural and organic are not interchangeable.  Other truthful claims, such as free-range, hormone-free, and locally grown can still appear on food labels.  However, don’t confuse these terms with “organic.”  Only food labeled “organic” has been certified as meeting U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA ) organic standards.

The label “all natural” or “100 percent natural” can be found on diverse food products ranging from peanut butter and cereal to “all-natural” sodas.  However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responsible for regulating and supervising food production, does not define or regulate use of the label “natural” on food products. Instead, the FDA official policy is that “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances,” an ambiguous policy that leaves interpretation of “natural” largely up to the food industry.

In contrast to the FDA, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does regulate use of the word “natural” when applied to meat, poultry, and eggs, stating that a “natural” food is “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.”  Although consumers purchasing “natural” meat, poultry, and eggs can be confident that there are no artificial ingredients or colors added, it’s important to note that “natural” does not necessarily mean hormone-free or antibiotic-free; these are separate labels, also regulated by the USDA.

Being organic

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.  Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.  Farmers who grow organic produce don’t use conventional methods to fertilize and control weeds. Examples of organic farming practices include using natural fertilizers to feed soil and plants, and using crop rotation or mulch to manage weeds.

Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.  Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

The USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.  Organic food differs from conventionally produced food in the way it is grown, handled, and processed.

Along with the national organic standards, the USDA has developed strict labeling rules to help consumers know the exact organic content of the food they buy.  The “USDA Organic” seal tells us that a product is at least 95 percent organic.

The “USDA Organic” seal also means that any animals involved in producing your food were treated according to USDA organic livestock living-condition standards. Organic dairy cows, for example, don’t live in crowded, unsanitary feed lots, and they spend at least 120 days per year grazing on pasture.

Look for the word “organic” and a small sticker version of the USDA Organic seal on vegetables or pieces of fruit.  Or they may appear on the sign above the organic produce display. The word “organic” and the seal may also appear on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods.

However, even when it comes to organic labels, not everything is as clear as it seems. For example:

  • Products labeled “100% Organic”contain 100% organic ingredients.
  • Products labeled “Organic”contain a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients, and the remaining 5 percent are produced using no GMOs, sewage sludge or irradiation.
  • Products labeled “Made with Organic Ingredients”contain a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients, and the remaining 30 percent are produced using no GMOs, sewage sludge or irradiation.
  • Products with less than 70 percent organic ingredientsmay list organic ingredients on the package’s side panel, but may not make any organic claim on the front of the package.

Many factors influence the decision to choose organic food. Some people choose organic food because they prefer the taste. Yet others opt for organic because of concerns such as:

  • Conventional growers use synthetic pesticides to protect their crops from molds, insects and diseases. When farmers spray pesticides, this can leave residue on produce. Organic farmers use insect traps, careful crop selection (disease-resistant varieties), predator insects or beneficial microorganisms instead to control crop-damaging pests. Some people buy organic food to limit their exposure to these residues. Organic produce typically carries significantly fewer pesticide residues than do conventional produce. However, residues on most products — both organic and nonorganic — don’t exceed government safety thresholds.
  • Food additives.Organic regulations ban or severely restrict the use of food additives, processing aids (substances used during processing, but not added directly to food) and fortifying agents commonly used in nonorganic foods, including preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colorings and flavorings, and monosodium glutamate.
  • Some people buy organic food for environmental reasons. Organic farming practices are designed to benefit the environment by reducing pollution and conserving water and soil quality.

So what is natural, anyway?

When you buy food labeled “natural,” it’s actually harder to know exactly what we’re getting because even when it appears on a U.S. food label, the word “natural” has no regulated definition.

“Natural” can mean any number of different things, depending on where in the country you are, who the food manufacturer is and what store is carrying the product. “Organic,” on the other hands, tells us we’re buying food made without the use of toxic persistent pesticides, GMOs, antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, sewage sludge or irradiation.

The only exception to this rule, as stated earlier, is when “natural” is used to describe meat or poultry. According to the USDA, “natural” meat and poultry contain no artificial ingredients or added color and are only minimally processed.

To add to our confusion, foods containing natural flavors, sweeteners, or other plant-derived substances can be labeled natural. In addition, foods containing highly processed high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can also be labeled “natural,” since the synthetic materials used to generate HFCS are not incorporated into the final product.  And foods containing genetically engineered or modified ingredients can be labeled “natural.”

Ultimately, consumers make their buying decisions based on their personal convictions, price, quality and accessibility. For many people, the fewer artificial ingredients and pesticides used, the better.  But whatever we choose, taking the time to understand the differences and knowing how to interpret the confusing array of regulations and labeling is a starting point for improved nutrition and better health.

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