Whenever I go to the grocery store I see a bunch of products advertised under the banners of “natural” and “organic.” There’s the organic produce section, marked with green shelving and a sense of sophistication. On the other side of the store is a new natural foods aisle, similarly labeled in green with packaging that suggests these are not just ordinary chips. These chips are far superior and healthier than their processed, standard cousins. And then there are the other products, edible and otherwise, sprinkled throughout the store that are sometimes “natural,” sometimes “organic,” and sometimes both.
I don’t know about you, but with all the similar packaging, colors, and branding as healthy and better-for-you, I find myself not really knowing the difference between natural and organic, if there even is a difference. I know organic has to do with pesticides, but what does natural mean? And if lack of pesticides isn’t natural, what is?
To help both myself and those of you equally unsure, I did some research so I could finally break down the difference.
Like I mentioned earlier, at its base level organic products are those that have been produced without pesticides. The “organic” label is regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP) which is run by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and defined as “[a] term for food or other agricultural products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity in accordance with the USDA organic regulations.” Essentially, for a product to be labeled as organic, it must comply with the NOP’s regulations and include over 70% organic materials or ingredients. A pre-packaged snack, for instance, can only be called “USDA certified organic” if over 70% of the ingredients are organic, otherwise individual ingredients can be called organic but not the whole product.
The goal of the NOP and organic products is to create easily identifiable products that are healthier and more environmentally friendly. The regulation of the organic label is also meant to lend legitimacy and support to farmers who follow organic practices. One of the side effects of organic farming, however, is generally more expensive produce, which leads into the debate between organic versus natural.
The key thing to understand about the “natural” label is, with the except of poultry and other meats, it’s not actually regulated by the USDA, NOP, or anyone else. Meat labeled as natural cannot contain coloring, any preservatives, or major processing. However, when it comes to other products or produce, the definition of “natural” is really left up to the producer.
Most people and companies define natural as limited processing and avoidance of artificial additions (colors, preservatives, sweeteners, etc.). The problem is there is still so much wiggle room and space for interpretation within that definition. What does “minimal processing” actually mean? How many additives constitute “only a few?” Furthermore, because there isn’t official regulation on natural products, they are often cheaper than organic products since they can use cheaper growing and processing methods, diluting the power of organic products which is just becoming code for “expensive” to many people. For the average consumer, the distinction between organic and natural is blurry at best, with many thinking natural products actually sound greener and healthier than organic when the reality is they are not regulated and therefore not held to the same standard.
Natural is not the Enemy
All of that is not to say that natural products are a scam or not to be trusted; plenty of natural products are well-intentioned, healthy, and environmentally conscious. The real takeaway here is that the labels are not the same. Being an informed consumer of natural and organic products means doing your due-diligence with these labels and ingredients. When looking at products labeled as natural, look for signs of minimal processing such as shorter ingredient lists, items that are in a close to a natural state, and few additives known to add color or sweetness.
The benefit of the natural product boom is, while it may not be regulated the way many consumers believe, if you know what you’re looking for there is now a much broader range of conscious and creative products available to us. Use this to your advantage and you’ll be an intelligent consumer of all the great natural and organic products around you.
For more information on the NOP and natural versus organic labeling, check out:
The National Organic Program
“What is the difference between natural products & organic products?” by Kit Arbuckle, SFGate
“Organic vs. natural a source of confusion in food labeling” by Monica Eng, The Chicago Tribune, July 10, 2009