Walking through your local supermarket, scanning the aisles for items on your shopping list, a plethora of confusing buzzwords are thrown at you.
Organic. Natural. Non-GMO. Gluten-free. Fair trade certified, and the list goes on. Grocery shopping clearly isn’t as easy as it used to be!
To make educated buying decisions, it’s critical to understand what these terms mean, and more importantly, whether the products are actually manufactured as advertised.
Today, we’ll break down this confusing labeling practice. We’ll start by exploring two of the most popular terms when you’re looking for healthy options: Natural versus Organic.
Did you know that the difference between those two seemingly interchangeable words can actually be quite significant? Let’s get started on the main differences between the two.
Natural Versus Organic – What’s the Difference?
We’ll start by defining both terms and unraveling what each label implies.
Natural – The “How”
Most people think that “natural” labeled products are always free of pesticides, added flavors, and sweeteners.
Unfortunately, this is not always the reality.
The truth is, natural products can be heavily affected by manufacturing activities. Any product containing flavors or sweeteners can be labeled natural. This means that products labeled natural can still be unhealthy for you.
The reason is that there is no law that bans growing “natural” products with pesticides, even though the majority of people think that natural products are always pesticide-free.
Food containing genetically-engineered ingredients can also be labeled natural, even though genetically modified crops are thought to be considered unsafe for human health and the environment, as there are currently no credible, independent, long-term GMO feeding studies (Non-GMO Project, 2023).
For meat and eggs, the “natural” label means that they don’t contain any artificial ingredients or colors. However, this doesn’t mean that meat or eggs labeled “natural” are always hormone or antibiotic-free.
This means that a “natural” label doesn’t necessarily imply that your product is not genetically modified. However, people who want to avoid genetically modified crops are often impressed with “all-natural” products and usually choose them over traditional products.
Food companies often take advantage of this through the process of greenwashing, which we’ll detail more below.
A “natural” label only grants that:
- Components must come from plants, flowers, and mineral origins.
- It’s never tested on animals.
- There’s no use of sulfates or other man-made chemicals.
Not-So-Natural – The “Why”
Some companies use the term “natural” as a way of marketing their products. You may see a product sold as “natural” even though some of its ingredients are questionable. In fact, this is a pretty common occurrence, unfortunately.
The Food and Drug Administration did not set a specific definition for the term “natural,” as it was initially used in personal care products. This gave food companies the ability to use the term “all-natural” even if synthesized elements are used in the products.
Upon the rising controversy, the FDA asked the public about their opinion on the usage of the term “natural” in the labeling of human food products. It took this action in response to citizens asking for a legal definition for the term “natural.”
Although the FDA wasn’t directly involved in any lawmaking actions, they said that the response made them and the public more aware of how the term circulates in the market.
Many companies were fined by the Federal Trade Commission for the misuse of the term. Unfortunately, the charges were made after the products had already gained momentum.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for a lot of the products that you can come across in a regular supermarket or online. We can’t solely rely on the FTC to effectively monitor the whole market. It’s unrealistic.
Then, How Do Companies Define “Natural”?
Surprisingly, there’s no legal definition for the term “natural.”
Companies are forced to set their own definition of the term when using it on their products. Thus, companies that sell both natural and conventional products are forced to explain the differences between their labeling based on their own definition.
This is where taking the time to read the ingredients is important. If you see a hard to pronounce ingredient that you don’t recognize, be sure to look it up to play it safe.
Organic – The “How”
Unlike the loose regulations of the so-called natural products, organic products do have a set of strict regulations that are set by the USDA and FDA to govern them.
Farms must be free of all banned substances 3 years before planting an organic crop. Also, farmers are forced to do regular check-ups and tests mostly on soil quality and pH. If you’re buying organic products, this guarantees that your food is free of banned toxic pesticides and chemicals.
Some farms do use approved “natural pesticides,” so if you want to be fully pesticide-free, I recommend shopping at your local farmer’s market and asking the farmers if they use any.
With organic foods, there are no growth hormones or antibiotics used while growing crops. They must be unmodified and free of artificial additives. Furthermore, organic crops must be grown using organic farming methods.
As a consumer, you must understand that any product that earned the organic label is produced without using any artificial substances.
Organic products are also known to the public to be the cleaner option. They’re also better as they typically cause less harm to the environment. This helps consumers ensure that they’re not introducing harmful substances to their bodies or to the planet.
In short, an “organic” label means:
- No use of synthetic herbicides or fertilizers.
- No artificial colors.
- No regular use of antibiotics.
- No genetic modification.
- Limited use of pesticides.
“Legally” Organic – The “Why”
The big difference between natural and organic in terms of product labeling is that the term “organic” is regulated.
The United States Department of Agriculture has the responsibility of defining the term “organic” legally. This means that any product containing agricultural ingredients and labeled as organic must meet the USDA regulations.
Again, this isn’t regulated by the FDA, as it’s related to personal care products.
A key concept to understand is that a product labeled as organic doesn’t mean it’s not natural, and vice versa.
Due to the regulations of the USDA for a wide range of organic labeling, the overlap between these two terms can occur. For example, the term “natural” can be used on a product, but only a portion of the product’s ingredients are organic.
The USDA set 4 different “organic” labeling definitions, which are essential to understand.
Types of Organic Labeling
|100% Organic||Made with organically produced ingredients only. This excludes water and salt.|
|Organic||Made of ingredients that are at least 95% organically produced. Again, salt and water are an exception here.|
|Made with organic ingredients||Products containing 70% to 95% organically produced ingredients.|
|Organic [ingredient]||Products made with less than 70% organically produced ingredients can only label the specific ingredients that meet the USDA regulations as organic.|
Why Do Organic Products Cost More?
One of the reasons is that organic farming often requires more physical work. For example, farmers may use hand weeding instead of spraying any herbicides. Another reason is that organic materials like the soil amendments are more expensive than their synthetic replacements.
Organic products also tend to have a shorter shelf life, as they aren’t treated with post-harvest chemicals that prevent dehydration and decay.
These factors combined account for the higher price of organic products.
However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the increased consumer demand for organic products will result in a reduction of costs over time.
So What Should You Buy?
It’s a widespread misconception that natural products are always as healthy as organic products. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth, as organic products are free of synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones. Natural labeled products may still contain these ingredients and therefore may not be as healthy.
An “organic” label is a stamp that lets consumers know that this product is inspected and regulated in every step of its production.
As we established, organic products are unmodified, while natural products can still contain artificial additives, pesticides, or hormones. On top of that, they can be genetically modified.
The main reason for the advantage of organic products is due to the strict rules set by the FDA and USDA that regulate them.
Unless regulations for natural labels are changed and replaced with stricter definitions, organic products are going to be better options for both the health of people and for the environment.
That being said, you don’t have to flat-out avoid natural-labeled products. Some products have no organic replacements, so you can opt for it’s “all-natural” version. After all, this is still better than fully artificial ingredients that are in many food products. The misuse of the term should make you a bit skeptical, not completely avoidant.
Learning to read a label correctly is one of the most crucial steps to better understand what products you’re buying.
Despite their efforts, the FDA & USDA won’t be getting a firm grasp on the natural market any time soon. That’s why it’s up to you to learn about the labeling and make the best buying decisions for yourself accordingly.
Thankfully with the internet at our fingertips, researching the labels and ingredients isn’t hard to do when determining whether your product really is a healthy and environmentally friendly option.
This post was last updated on May 24, 2023.