Have you ever wondered what natural vs. organic food labels really mean? Which one is better for you? If you want to eat healthy, it’s common to turn to foods that are labeled “organic” or “natural.” When we think of organic or natural, we may think they mean the same thing, but that’s not true.
Food labels can be confusing. You might think you are eating something healthy when in reality, it still contains various additives. Understanding what organic and natural means on food labeling will help you make better nutritional choices.
What does “organic” mean?
Organic means that the foods are manufactured and produced using specific methods, which are set by the Organic Food Products Act which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Of all the food labeling terms, organic has the strictest criteria. Foods that have the USDA organic label must meet certain standards. The federal guidelines set by the USDA address several factors, including soil quality, pest control, the use of additives, and animal raising practices. For example, poultry, meat, dairy products, and eggs that are labeled organic must come from animals which are not given growth hormones or antibiotics.
When it comes to plants, organic foods must be made without conventional pesticides or fertilizers with synthetic ingredients. No prohibited pesticides and fertilizers can be used for three years before harvest.
To earn the certified food label, farmers must go through a specific process. The first step in the process is to develop a plan for how the food producing operation will adhere to the regulations required to be certified as organic. The plan may vary depending upon the type of food produced.
After an organic system plan is created, it is reviewed by a certifying agent. Certifying agents are accredited by the USDA and are located throughout the world. A certifying agent must also inspect the farm to determine if all standards for organic processing and handling are being met.
There are different levels of “organic” that manufacturers of food packages can claim, including:
- Made from organic ingredients: At least 70 percent of the ingredients must be certified organic. The packaging can state “made with organic ingredients,” but cannot use the USDA organic seal.
- Organic: Products must contain 95 percent organic ingredients and can use the USDA organic seal.
- 100-percent organic: All ingredients are organic, and the USDA organic seal can be used.
Benefits of Organic Foods
Organically produced foods definitely offer certain benefits over non-organic foods. Organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones. (5)
One study, which involved an analysis of 343 peer-reviewed journals, indicated that certain organically grown crops may have higher concentrations of antioxidants and fewer pesticides than the same non-organic foods. The study found that processes in the organic farming system, including fertilization techniques, were likely the reason for the difference in antioxidant concentration and pesticide residue. (1)
In other research that involved a meta-analysis of 170 studies, results indicated that organic dairy had higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic milk. (2)
What does “natural” mean?
The rules to use “natural” in food labeling are not as well-defined or regulated as using organic. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, natural on labeling should mean nothing synthetic or artificial has been added to the food. But it is not a formal rule or enforced federal regulation, which may mean some foods labeled natural can still contain hormones, pesticides, and certain additives. The term natural also does not refer to the materials or methods that were used to make the food ingredients.
When it comes to meat including, beef and chicken, the labeling of “natural” means the food cannot be altered during processing. No artificial chemical preservatives, colorings, or spices can be added.
But natural does not include standards regarding how the animals were raised, farming practices, and what the animal consumed. This means meats labeled “all natural” may come from animals that ate non-organic grains or received antibiotics or growth hormones.
Does “natural” always mean it is good for us?
Most people probably think that if they eat food that is labeled “all natural” it is good for their health, but that may not always be the case. When food is labeled natural, it can be a little misleading.
In fact, a study was conducted to determine if food that was packaged as “natural” was perceived as healthier and lower in calories. Although natural products had the same number of calories as their regular counterparts, study participants thought the foods labeled “natural” had 18 percent fewer calories. (3)
Keep in mind that foods that are labeled natural can contain certain substances that are not good for you. For example, “natural foods” may still contain gluten or synthetic hormones. Also, certain substances and ingredients in foods may be considered natural even though they are unhealthy. For example, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is derived from corn and may be considered natural by some food manufacturers, but it is unhealthy.
In one animal study, mice were divided into two groups. One group was given water. Another group was given a 10 percent high fructose corn syrup solution. The mice given the HFCS had altered dopamine function and glucose instability. The results indicated that diets high in HFCS can contribute to metabolic disorder. (4)
High fructose corn syrup is not the only unhealthy food that may be in products labeled natural. Food products that may be labeled natural may contain the following unhealthy ingredients:
- High sodium
- Palm kernel oil
- Xanthan gum, which is a thickening agent made from bacteria
- Genetically modified crops
- Foods labeled all natural can also be high in sugar, calories, and fats
The bottom line is that food labeling does not always tell the entire story, especially when it comes to “natural.” It’s best always to read the ingredients. Obviously, organic foods are the preferred choice because they are the safest and healthiest for you.
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- Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses
- Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analyses.
- Naturally good: Front-of-package claims as message cues
- High fructose corn syrup induces metabolic dysregulation and altered dopamine signaling in the absence of obesity