Shopping can seem like an exhaustive endeavor of deciphering the difference between labels — especially when it comes to “all-natural” vs “organic” products.
The ways in which consumers shop at grocery stores, food co-ops, and farmer’s markets have shifted as people have become more consciously invested in the foods they eat and the environments where these food items are sourced.
Though often used interchangeably, the terms “organic” and “all-natural” are defined differently and adhere to different regulation policies. Understanding the difference between organic and all-natural can help you make better informed, safer choices online, in the aisles of your local grocery store or the stands of your local farmer’s market.
What Is the Difference Between Natural and Organic Foods?
While they both may appear to distinguish healthy food and beauty products from the rest of the bunch, “organic” and “all-natural” do not share the same meaning. In fact, a deeper look at the difference between natural vs organic labels shows that they’re not even in the same league.
The term “organic” is strictly regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) stringent requirements and therefore guarantees that organic food or products do not contain antibiotics, growth hormones, synthetic pesticides or harmful herbicides.
On the other hand, the term, “all-natural,” is not regulated by any agency and does not ensure that products are void of hazardous pesticides and other toxins. Food manufacturers can simply slap a “natural” label on their products, even if they contain an abundance of processed ingredients. Although there are healthy products labeled as “all-natural,” the term is almost entirely unregulated.
What Does the USDA Organic Label Mean?
When you see the USDA organic label on a bunch of bananas, for example, you can trust that the fruit was grown on organically-certified land that promotes biodiversity as to not waste natural resources, and was not genetically engineered. Packaged steaks and poultry in the meat section of a grocer that sport this label also follow specific regulations.
Products that have a 100% organic label only contain organically produced ingredients and processing agents. Any other ingredient or additive is not authorized for this regulation. To obtain an “organic” label, products must be comprised of at least 95% organically produced ingredients, with an exception to salt and water.
Products that possess less than 70% organic certified content are not allowed to bear the organic seal, but may list certain ingredients as organic on their ingredients list.
The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) enforces a specific set of rules for all organic agricultural products made in the U.S. or products that are imported for sale. These rules include:
Crop Production Requirements:
- Crops must use organic seeds, not genetically-modified seeds that expose fruits and vegetables to allergens, pathogens and toxins
- Crop nutrients are maintained through biological substances, such as animal manure, compost and crop residue (stalks, leaves, seed pods) and several acceptable synthetic substances on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
- Soil or environment must be free of synthetic fertilizers and substances on the Prohibited Substances list for three years before crops have been harvested (there are some exceptions to this rule)
- Conserves natural resources and promotes biodiversity
- Soil fertility is achieved through crop covers, crop rotations and cultivation and tillage methods
- Biological, mechanical and physical management practices are implemented to thwart disease, weeds and predators from damaging crops; if these methods fail, approved biological, botanical or synthetic substances may be used
- Must satisfy all regulations imposed by a supervising USDA’s NOP-authorized certifying agent before any product is labeled or sold as organic (violations result in $11,000 in fines)
- Prohibit the use of sewage sludge: a muddy product of wastewater treatment that poses a threat when plants absorb heavy metals and pathogens from the soil
- Prohibit the use of ionizing radiation, a technology that induces genetic mutations, that was cited in 1949 as “deleterious to human health”
Livestock and Poultry Production Standards:
- Devoid of genetic engineering, growth hormones, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge
- Raised under animal health and welfare requirements in conjunction with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
- Raised in an organic environment where crops uphold organic requirements
- Animals are not fed synthetic feed or feed that has been treated with any prohibited substance
- Conservation of natural resources and promotion of biodiversity
- Must meet all regulations imposed by a supervising USDA’s NOP-authorized certifying agent before any product is labeled or sold as organic
- Animals for slaughter are organically controlled from the last third of gestation (mammals) or second day of life (poultry)
- Granted year-round access to outdoors depending on climatic conditions
- Dairy animals must follow organic practices for at least a year before milk or dairy products are sold, labeled or qualified as such
For organic food to be sold, labeled or categorized as such, the NOP requires that all crops and animals must be comprised of at least 95% certified organic matter.
What Is Considered “All Natural”?
To be completely frank, the term “all-natural” doesn’t really mean anything, at least as it relates to the quality of your food products.
“All-natural” is an appealing phrase. The “all” implies completion, entirety; and “natural,” by definition, it’s anything that appears in nature or is not made by mankind. This hyphenated phrase implies that products are made of superior ingredients, when in reality they are not likely to be.
Yet, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “from a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product as ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.”
The FDA does, however, consider the term “natural” as an indicator that products do not contain artificial or synthetic additives that would typically not be found in said product. Unfortunately this assessment does not include the production of food that incorporates potentially harmful pesticides.
Depending on where you shop in America and what products fill your cupboards and refrigerators, “all-natural” can take on various definitions. Case in point: the FDA considers high-fructose corn syrup as a natural ingredient.
Marketing sectors are familiar with this rhetorical strategy and use it to their advantage. Remember to look at the ingredients, not only the product descriptions.
What Are “All-Natural” Ingredients and Products?
- Not regulated by FDA or USDA certification policies, except for meat and poultry
- Meat and poultry can only be considered “natural” so long as artificial ingredients or added colors have not been introduced, and if the products are not “fundamentally altered” from raw product during processing.
- “Natural” does not guarantee meat and poultry products are antibiotic-free or hormone-free
- Meat and poultry products must indicate how they classify as “natural”; this does not stipulate how animals are raised or fed (Read more about grass-fed vs grain-fed animals here).
- Minimally processed (arbitrarily up to manufacturers)
- Contains natural flavors, sweeteners or other plant-derivatives
- Does not contain artificial flavors or preservatives, color additives or shelf life agents such as emulgents, hydrogenated oils and stabilizers
- May contain antibiotics, growth hormones and other synthetic chemicals
- May contain high fructose corn syrup
All-Natural vs Organic: Which Is Better For Your Health?
Eating organically or choosing organic products like soaps and tampons might seem like lifestyle choices that render little welfare to our health. But available research suggests that the difference is palpable, and organic products may actually be better for your health in the long run.
In a 2013 study, researchers fed Drosophila melanogaster fruit flies a diet of extracted organic bananas, potatoes, raisins and soybeans. They found that these flies had “greater fertility and longevity” through egg count and death rate analyses. They also discovered, in the case of certain organically produced extracts, that the flies possessed “greater activity and greater stress resistance” compared to their non-organically fed counterparts.
In a Norweigan Mother and Child Cohort Study, researchers evaluated 28,000 mothers and their babies they recruited between 1998 and 2008. They discovered that women who included a high intake of organic vegetables in their diets during pregnancy exemplified a “reduction in the risk of pre-eclampsia,” a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and damaged organs.
Finally, in a study conducted by the California Western School of Law (CWSL), researchers surveyed 185 subjects of various age groups and backgrounds, including students, adjunct faculty, full-time faculty and staff. Those who had children were then asked to evaluate the health and safety of foods bearing various labels: organic, all-natural, fat-free, low fat, GMO and non-GMO. Results showed that participants rated organic foods to be both healthier and safer than any other label category.
Therefore, when it comes to distinguishing the difference between natural vs organic in terms of health, organic products are typically healthier than something simply deemed as “all-natural.”
Beyond the All-Natural vs Organic Debate: How to Shop for (Actually) Healthy Food
At the end of the day, we need to be aware of what we put into our bodies. This attitude starts with having a discerning eye and knowing the difference between all-natural vs organic products. If that box of “all-natural” cookies on the shelf at the grocery store lists over a dozen ingredients with names you cannot pronounce on its nutrition label, you may want to reconsider your options.
Organic labeled products, conversely, are governmentally regulated and come with a wealth of guarantees, so you can be sure you know what enters your body. We’re not saying the organic label is perfect, but it beats marketing terms like “all-natural” every time.
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