When it comes to food labels, natural and organic are not interchangeable terms. Both imply that food is more wholesome and healthy, but if you look beneath the label, there are stark differences. From the regulations that govern their production to the contents of the finished product, natural and organic foods are not the same.
According to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), “natural” foods are minimally processed and free of artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and additives like hydrogenated oils, stabilizers and emulsifiers. But there is no certification or inspection system to ensure that the label is accurate. Also, the term "natural" does not usually relate to growing methods or the use of preservatives, whereas organically-grown foods have strict regulations in these areas. The National Organic Program, part of the United States Department of Agriculture, holds the food industry to strict standards in the production and sale of organic foods.
Natural Meat and Poultry
According to the Food Marketing Institute, the term “natural” is regulated when it comes to meat and poultry. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service requires natural meat and poultry to be free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and ingredients, and they must be minimally processed. Labels on natural meat and poultry should clarify the use of the term natural, such as there being no artificial ingredients. But labeling meat and poultry products as natural implies nothing about how these foods were raised, which means that the animals could have been subjected to hormones or antibiotics. Also, the term "natural" has no connection to the living conditions of the animals, whereas organic labels do.
While “natural” refers mainly to the finished product, “organic” refers to not only the food but also to how it was produced. Foods that are labeled organic must meet or exceed the regulations of the USDA. This means that they must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and support biodiversity. Crops must be grown without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Organic livestock must be given organic feed, have access to the outdoors and be raised free of antibiotics and growth hormones.
Looking at Labels
Just about any food can be labeled as “natural,” but truly organic food carries a special label from the USDA. This label can be green and brown or black and white, and it features a circle with the words “USDA Organic” in the center. This label means that the food inside the packaging is at least 95 percent organic as recognized by the USDA’s standards. Products that don’t have the USDA seal, but say, “Made with Organic Ingredients,” are at least 70 percent organic.
Demand for Natural Foods
According to the FMI, growing demand for foods that are healthful, tasty and environmentally friendly has increased organic food sales and encouraged food makers to label foods as “natural,” even if they are not organic. Sales of organic foods increased nearly seven times between 1997 and 2007, and continue to grow. Therefore, many food producers have begun labeling their products as natural to appeal to these buyers, but this is often misleading. However, organic foods are often more expensive than conventional ones, so natural foods are a good option for many families. The FMI reports that, overall, organic food is neither safer nor more nutritious than conventionally-processed foods, but for those who want to limit their exposure to and consumption of artificial substances, organic is best, but natural foods are a healthy step in the right direction.