Natural vs Organic Labeling

by Catherine Haug (April 6, 2010; updated Feb 9, 2011)

Recent polls indicate most shoppers consider “Natural” to be better (more healthful) than “Organic.” If this is also your opinion, you’re in for a shock. Check out this 4 minute video from the Cornucopia Institute, comparing ‘Natural’ boxed cereals and granola with Organic: Natural vs Organic Cereal.

  • ‘Organic’ is a certified and verified by the USDA, with rules governing it’s use;
  • ‘Natural’ can be used without any certification and on any product, there are no rules governing its use, and there is no verification by anyone that the statement is true. ‘Natural’ food products can be contaminated with pesticides, herbicides and other toxic chemicals.

So between these two choices on similar products, you’d be better off with the ‘Organic’ label than the ‘Natural’ label. That is, unless the ‘Natural’ grower/producer is local and you can verify his methods.

You can view a video from NBC’s Today Show, discussing food labeling at Food For Thought: Understanding Labels (aired March 26, 2010).

See also related ESP posts: Report on Organic Eggs (2010) and Eggs: A Buyer’s Guide.

The Organic Label

Single-ingredient foods such as produce and eggs have only one label, “Organic.”

But things get confusing when the food has more than one ingredient (processed food and pasteurized dairy products). There are three different levels of “Organic” (From the Certified Organic Label Guide):

  • “100% Organic”(green or black label) means that 100% of all ingredients are certified and verified Organic.
  • “Organic” (green or black label) means that 95% of the ingredients must be certified Organic. This may sound good, but consider this:  preservatives, flavor enhancers and food colorings are typically less than 5% of the ingredients in any processed food, so they can be found in foods with the “Organic” label.
  • “Made with Organic” does not  have a USDA Organic seal, but the packaging can say “Made with Organic.” Between 70% and 94% of the total ingredients must be certified Organic. Buyer Beware with this one.

Organic Alternative Label:

Certified Naturally Grown” is a new (non-FDA/USDA) certification available to local growers who use Organic methods but don’t want to incur the high fees and paperwork required for true Organic certification. See label at left; see below for more on this label.

See also The Daily Green’s Food Label Decoder.

When Organic may not be organic

The difficulty doesn’t end with the labeling confusion. Consider the following problems.

No Oversight over Some Foreign growers

Consider that many “Organic” foods come from foreign countries where the USDA does not have its own agents to do the certification and verification. Instead, they contract independent agents over whom they have little control. This problem was recently brought to light when “organic” frozen foods from China were found to be less than Organic quality. See my post “Organics from China” for more.

‘Made with Organic’ may contain GMOs

Foods labeled Made with Organic are likely not worth the higher cost over the conventional version, since up to 30% of the ingredients can be non-organic. Not only are these foods likely to have all the same undesirable non-organic preservatives, flavor enhancers and food colorings, but also they may also contain GMO ingredients such as corn, soy or canola.

Cosmetics, soaps and shampoos

These products pose another problem with the use of “Organic. At present, there are no Organic certification guidelines for these products, so they can advertise as “organic” when they contain toxic or harmful detergents, synthetic fragrances and other chemicals largely made from petroleum.

When Local is Better than Organic

Many local growers and producers use organic methods, or even better than organic (such as bio-dynamic), but cannot afford the fees and paperwork required for the certification. Locally-grown food is the freshest you can get, short of harvesting from your own garden.

When you go to a Farmers’ Market or stop at a roadside stand, ask the grower about his methods. You might be pleasantly surprised!

Certified Naturally Grown

Such producers now have another label available to them (shown left), that does not require all the fees and paperwork. For more on this label, see, From the Food Label Decoder:

“The Certified Naturally Grown label is used on items produced on smaller farms that grow using USDA Certified Organic methods and sell locally; it’s like USDA Certified Organic Lite. This non-profit labeling program does away with the high cost of certification and the mountains of paperwork required to track crops from seed to sale in order to be labeled USDA Certified Organic. Small-scale farmers that use this eco-friendly label do so to emphasize the natural farming methods used to grow your food.”

Fair Trade is Important Too

Many foreign growers are exploited by large food corporations to keep prices low on American grocery shelves. Such exploitation can force the growers to cut corners and use less than organic methods.

Fair Trade Certified

This label (shown right) indicates not only good growing practices, but also fair compensation for the food production. From the Food Label Decoder:

“The Fair Trade Certified label helps to ensure that farmers are paid fair, above market prices for their products. It also guarantees that farm workers are paid fairly for their labor. Buying Fair Trade Certified employs sustainable farming practices, which protects everyone’s health and helps preserve valuable ecosystems for future generations. Look for this label on coffee, teas, chocolates, bananas, sugar, cocoa and even honey, as well as imported commodities.

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