You may be surprised to learn that the difference between all-natural and organic on your food labels isn’t as clear-cut as you may think. Just because products are advertised as all-natural, 100% natural, low fat, no sugar added, or even organic doesn’t mean that they are good for you.
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The 2015 Natural Food Labels Survey
Up until recently, many Americans were quite lazy in determining whether or not the foods they eat are harmful for their bodies, and they have historically relied on scanning food labels instead of diving deep into the important details of the difference between all-natural and organic.
Thankfully, the tides seem to be changing…
An important paradigm shift in how Americans are now reading food labels is highlighted in the most recent Food Labels Survey conducted by the Consumer Report® National Research Center. (4)
According to this survey, the following objectives were viewed by consumers as very important:
- Reducing pesticide exposure – 63%
- Protecting the environment from chemicals – 62%
- Supporting your local farmers – 60%
- Supporting fair pay/working conditions – 59%
- Reducing antibiotics in food production – 54%
- Avoiding GMOs – 52%
- Better living conditions for farm animals – 52%
- Avoiding artificial ingredients – 48%
We can thank public service campaigns for the increase in heightened awareness of these important objectives that were not even on the Consumer Report® radar 20 years ago.
Difference Between All Natural and Organic
The majority of Americans desire to purchase “all-natural” and “organic” products, but they are still unsure about what these distinctions really mean. Most consumers think that the labels of natural or organic on meat and poultry mean that no artificial ingredients, growth hormones, genetically modified ingredients, or antibiotics were used. So what’s the difference between all-natural and organic?
It is encouraging that more Americans are questioning what they put on their plates, but it is quite alarming that the majority believes that “natural” and “organic” are nearly synonymous when nothing could be further from the truth.
What Does “All Natural” Mean?
The FDA does not have a definition for the term “natural,” but once a crop has been harvested and manufactured, it is technically not “natural” anymore because it is no longer a pure product of the Earth.
What does all-natural mean? The only truly “natural” foods in the marketplace are fresh fruits and vegetables and some choice nuts, grains, and legumes that have not been tampered with by humans.
In the FDA’s own words, “The agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” (5)
Essentially, food manufacturers can now slip in ingredients that most health enthusiasts would scoff at, all under the guise of “natural,” and it’s legal. This raises significant eyebrows because the definition of “synthetic substances” is as vague as “all-natural.”
It has been reported that the FDA has accepted high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as an “all-natural” ingredient if it can be confirmed that no synthetic fixing agents came in contact with it during manufacturing. (6)
Known to contain mercury, HFCS is, in the words of Mark Hyman, MD:
“An industrial food product and far from “natural” or a naturally occurring substance. It is extracted from corn stalks through a process so secret that Archer Daniels Midland and Carghill would not allow the investigative journalist Michael Pollan to observe it for his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” (7)
High fructose corn syrup is just one of many examples of FDA mislabeling practices and raises serious suspicions of the FDA’s accuracy in regulating “natural” products.
The term “organic” is much more rigorously regulated. For a food item to be considered organic, it must be produced using methods “that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics.” (8)
The FDA has helped to further define the varieties of “organic” food: (9)
“Organic” crops – The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.
“Organic” livestock – The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.
“Organic” multi-ingredient foods – The USDA organic seal verifies that the product has 95% or more certified organic content. If the label claims that it was made with specified organic ingredients, you can be sure that those specific ingredients are certified organic.
“Made with Organic” Ingredients – These products contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The remaining non-organic ingredients are produced without using prohibited practices (genetic engineering, for example) but can include substances that would not otherwise be allowed in 100% organic products.
The Real Meaning Of Organic
What does the term “organic” really mean? It’s important to realize that although a product may be USDA-certified organic, it is NOT guaranteed to be:
- Local – More than 10% of organic food is reportedly imported. (10)
- Chemical or Spray Free – Many sources claim that so-called organic produce is actually sprayed with more chemicals than non-organic sources. The loophole is that the spray must be tied to a “naturally-occurring” chemical, which can get into a gray area very quickly. (10)
- Sustainable – Most organic farms are mega-million dollar operations with the same over-harvesting practices as conventional producers.
- Or… Healthy – This point is important to understand because candy is still candy and deep-fried potato chips are still bad for you, regardless if they’re made from organic ingredients or not.
Consumers have to wonder what the extra 5% of ingredients in certified “organic” multi-ingredient food items are actually made of. It’s safe to assume they are not pesticide-free and that they do not pass the USDA-certified organic sniff test.
The only way to guarantee that your food is free from harmful chemicals is to purchase locally grown produce from farmers that you know and trust, or better yet, grow your own.