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Natural vs. Organic: What's Truth and What's Hype?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Pop quiz: Which is the best product description to read on a food label?
A. “100% natural”
B. “All natural ingredients”
C. “100% organic”
D. “Certified organic ingredients”

(Keep reading for the answer!)

This spring, Eco Pulse, a recent survey conducted by the Shelton Group, asked that same question, and though natural and organic foods are now available in seven in 10 supermarkets nationwide, according to the Food Marketing Institute, most of the 1,006 respondents didn't do so well.

We're paying more attention to the food that goes into our mouths.

Sales of natural and organic food topped $28 billion in 2006, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, with demand for organic foods alone increasing 22 percent, to almost $17 billion.

However, as consumers try to become more discerning at the supermarket, the buzzwords used on food labels are growing more complicated and convoluted. Whether you want the greenest option or products that are minimally processed and free of laboratory-created ingredients, all those grandiose marketing claims can confound even the savviest shopper.

“Many consumers do not understand green terminology,” said Suzanne Shelton of the Shelton Group.

In a world where burgers are "now made with real beef," carrots are labeled cholesterol-free and sugary drinks are sold as vitamin supplements, what's hype and what's healthy?

It's no wonder that consumers are confused!

“They prefer the word ‘natural’ over the term ‘organic,’ thinking organic is more of an unregulated marketing buzzword that means the product is more expensive. In reality, the opposite is true: ‘Natural’ is the unregulated word. Organic foods must meet government standards to be certified as such," said Shelton.

The choice isn't immediately clear: Potato chips can be organic. High fructose corn syrup, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is natural. So which term is "best"?

While the structure of the original question implies that the choice is a subjective one, the correct answer is C, 100% organic. Labeling does get a bit complicated, and as with any rules, some companies bend them more than others. Here, we'll examine each of the answers and their basic meaning.

"Natural," “100% natural” and “all natural ingredients” are misleading and unregulated. What clout the term does hold refers to the processing of food after harvest or slaughter, not the method in which it was grown or raised.

The terms are not regulated by the USDA, except for meat and poultry. In the past, "natural" was used as a synonym for "healthy" but now is a euphemism for "fewer processed ingredients," "no longer containing corn syrup," and other general claims.

According to the Food Marketing Institute, most foods labeled as natural aren't held to any special regulations or controls. They must meet the general controls for food safety, but that's it.

"Natural" meat and poultry must be free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and other such ingredients. They are minimally processed and must contain labels that explain the term "natural." It does not, however, refer to how the meat was raised. Meat that was given growth hormones and antibiotics, if not overly processed during the butchering process and free of additives, can be labeled "natural."

"Natural" might conjure thoughts of fresh, minimally processed and healthy food, but it has nothing to do with a food's nutritional content, ingredients, safety, or health effects. Natural potato chips may use real potatoes (instead of flakes), but like regular potato chips, they are still a high-fat food choice with little nutritional content. Natural soda may be sweetened with cane juice (instead of corn syrup), but it can still contribute to weight gain when eaten in excess.

"Organic" refers to both the processing and production of food, and foods that bear such a label must meet or exceed standards set in 2002's National Organic Program. They are grown without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes, and fertilizers made with petroleum or sewage sludge. Organic foods must also be grown using tactics that promote biodiversity and renewable resources. Livestock labeled "organic" must have access to the outdoors and cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones.

  • "100% organic" means that the food contains only organic ingredients. They can bear the "USDA Organic" seal.
  • A food labeled "organic" has at least 95% organic ingredients. They can bear the "USDA Organic" seal.
  • "Made with Organic Ingredients" means that a food contains between 70% and 95% organic ingredients and can list up to three of those ingredients as "organic."
  • Any product that contains less than 70% organic ingredients may not be labeled as organic, but its ingredients list on the label can indicate organic ingredients.

    Other labeling claims
    The USDA doesn't regulate claims such as "no drugs or growth hormones used," "free range" or "sustainably harvested." (For more information on food labeling and the National Organic Program, read this.

    So how did those survey respondents answer?
    • A. “100% natural” -- 31 percent
    • B. “All natural ingredients” -- 25 percent
    • C. “100% organic” -- 14 percent
    • D. “Certified organic ingredients” -- 12 percent

    Many companies are starting to take notice, for a variety of reasons, removing corn syrup and launching "natural" lines.

    Haagen-Dazs has launched an ice cream line with just five ingredients, aptly named five.

    Starbucks and Jamba Juice are among the companies limiting and outright eliminating corn syrup and artificial flavors from their products.

    Pepsi launched a "Throwback" and a "Natural" line that contain sugar.

    The nation's largest organic dairy company Dean's launched a "natural" line, the definition of which is defined as "produced without added hormones, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup," according to a Los Angeles Times story. Many say the move will further confuse consumers and lead them to think "natural" is synonymous with "organic."

    In short: "Organic" is regulated and means something; "natural" is (almost always) a marketing buzzword.

    Still confused? Try following a few simple rules:
    • Don't eat what you can't pronounce. If your food contains ingredients that seem like they belong in a chemistry lab, it's probably not the most nutritious choice out there.
    • Eat foods with fewer than five ingredients. The shorter a label is, the less likely it is to contain extraneous, artificial ingredients.
    • Don't interpret "organic," "natural" or any other label word to mean healthy. An organic cream puff still contains fat and calories. A "natural" soda made with sugar is still a soda.

    Want to read more about organic food and product labels? Read these stories!

    Organic or Conventional Gardening: What's Better?

    Top 12 Foods to Buy Organic

    The Loopholes of Food Labeling

    Why Go Organic?

    Did you know the difference between natural and organic? Do you now? Do you believe the marketing claims made on food packaging?

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WILDKAT781 7/15/2020
I think it is important to educate ourselves about chemicals used. I get so tired of hearing "if you can't pronounce it, you shouldn't eat it"... number 1, education will fix your pronunciation. number 2, even if you have trouble saying it, does not mean it is bad...Look at dihydrogen monoxide. Report
KOALA_BEAR 3/7/2020
Even w/ organic the growers have tricks. Some produce it matter that it's organic, like apples but others like berries not as much. Strawberries require fungicides & are used 10 of 12 months during the year in Calif where majority are grown. For the other two months there is a moratorium so no berries grow. I only eat organic when someone I know grows it & gives it to me. I try to avoid a lot of chemicals but one reason we live as long as we do is because we can mass produce enough food. You have to factor that into the equation. Not all chemical names are bad, some are required by government standards. Still you should know what you are getting then decide. Report
LIS193 3/7/2020
Good information, thanks Report
KHALIA2 1/9/2020
I prefer organic and buy it whenever I can! Report
Thanks! Report
Thank You so much...…….. Report
Great article! Thanks! Report
I buy organic at times--- Report
thanks Report
Thanks Report
I guessed the 100% Organic correct. I didn't know the meaning of "natural" until now and I have bought poultry that was tagged "natural". Thanks for this informative blog. I have been well educated. Report
I buy organic when I can. Report
Very good info. I have always been a label reader as I have always watched calories, fats, and for 30+ years sodium. Now that I cook for three young children on wheat-free, gluten-free diets, I read every ingredient carefully. Foods with malt, barley, etc. are not acceptable. We get as much "organic" as possible without going overboard on prices and I am a cook who makes meals from scratch. Our beef comes from a neighbor who has grass-fed cows and we are now raising our own chickens, but only for the nice brown eggs. They are pets of the kids and we would never eat one. Report
I am still confused.

I have tried organic and there was no difference in the taste. So why pay more because it says organic. Report
I do buy organic when possible. Report
I never read the ingredients list until SparkPeople..... now I do almost ALL the time! I'm glad to have read this article, as The labeling of "organic" & "natural" are confusing. Report
Great info, very educational. I too did not know the difference. Now it is clearer. I do like the idea of not getting items with more then 5 ingredients as I like to eat healthy now but I have always read labels since I cannot eat sugar. Report
I worked in a co-op organic grocery before such things were popular (back in the early 1990s) so I knew the difference. I've always been an avid label reader and even on non-organic products I follow a basic rule: if the first several ingredients aren't recognizable as real food, I don't buy the product. I buy nothing which has chemicals in it because of chemical sensitivities. My non-organic vegetables from the local grocery have three ingredients: vegetable, water, salt. Report
Wow, I had no idea about any of that. I just thought it was all the same thing. I try to buy organic, but when there isn't organic i quickly reached for the "all natrual". Report
I have noticed that organic produce often tastes better and is less mealy and bruised. Not always, but often. I usually check both the organic and commercial, check the prices, then decide which to buy this week. With seasonal items the organic produce is only slightly more expensive. I have been trying to grow some of my own and to buy in bulk from local growers when I can. Report
Great info, thanks for sharing. Report
I've never paid attention to natural or organic foods. Now that I know a little, I will start paying attention and start learning more. Report
This is great information to know. Knowledge is power. Report
As someone who has worked at Whole Foods for 5+ years, yes, I know all about natural and organic. We have multiple trainings on the subject and most employees are generally well-informed. I also try to buy as much organic food as I can and do my food shopping exclusively at WFM or the farmer's market.

I'm saddened and dismayed by a lot of the comments here. I will never understand this negative perception of the organic movement. Also, at WFM, we DO have a strict definition of natural food and very stringent quality standards all products must meet. Most food in a conventional store would not be considered "clean" and would not be allowed on our shelves as we disallow trans fats, hydrogenated oils, artificial colors/flavors, etc.

It's true that natural/organic don't = healthy but when I buy crackers at work I know they don't have the junk found in most big brands. Plus, when I buy our private label 365 stuff I know that the food is sourced from non-GMO plants, even if it's a conventional product. That matters to me. Report
Guess we'd better stop eating things with pyridoxine hydrochloride, thiamin mononitrate, and sodium ascorbate (or ascorbic acid) - they sound like they belong in a chemistry lab. Oh guess what they are vitamin B6, vitamin B1 and vitamin C!

How about buying fresh foods and cooking from scratch? Half of my foods don't even have labels: fresh fruits and veggies that are not prepackaged, fresh cuts of meat and fish, etc. Shop the perimeter of the store, stay out of the aisles, and you'll do just fine.

And by the way, "organic" has different meanings depending on what you're talking about. Yes, DAN_ODEA, if you're talking chemistry, organic things have primarily carbon, hydrogen, and other elements like oxygen. This includes crude oil, gasoline, plastics, styrofoam, etc, but obviously you don't want to eat those. Yes, if you're talking food, organic foods are grown without synthetic pesticides or GMOs. All food is organic if you're talking chemistry, so obviously when food is labeled "organic" they're talking about the second definition.

One more thing. I know HFCS gets a bad rap and it's not exactly good for you, but think about it this way. HFCS is made by processing corn starch with enzymes. Cheese is made by processing milk with an enzyme. Enzymes are natural, and without them, life would not exist. Making HFCS is a chemical process, but so is digestion, burning calories, and breathing, all of which are very natural.

By the way, I did pick C

Ok I'm done for now :) Report
Do you think they could make it more confusing?? Good heavens!! Thanks for sharing this with us! Report
Very informative, thanks for doing all the research I do not have time for!!!! awesome!! Report
This article is chuck full of valuable info that I will be passing on to my adult children. Report
I am a 100% believer in organic...unfortunately my checkbook is not. I fit in as much organic food into my life as for the meat...that is still so pricey that I can't do it...not yet anyway.

Unfortunately, I am not a believer in the FDA and prefer not to purchase anything they have approved and there was an article out recently (my husband told me about it so I don't have all the details) but apparently the FDA is approving some companies to label their food as Organic when they are in fact...not. I like what was said about eating foods with few ingredients (even though the FDA does not require companies to put ALL the ingredients on a package) and only eat what you can pronounce on the ingredient list...Great article...Thank you! Report
Great article and great information - thanks! Report
maybe it's because I'm very into eating organic, but I knew the answer immediately! It is a little scary how few people know what they are reading on food labels! I almost feel like there should be a class on it in school! Then again, the schools would probably just teach whatever some company was paying them to teach, since they need the money so badly. Report
Great article!~ It cleared up some misconceptions for me. Report
"Don't interpret "organic," "natural" or any other label word to mean healthy."

An excellent concept to remember. Report
Thanks for clarifying these terms. It's sad that we have to keep re-educating ourselves to keep ahead of the marketing blitz out there. Report
I agree with SHADOZA! If it says "organic" I put it back! It irritates me that only people with a lot of money should get the really healthy food! I am learning to try to eat and feed my family whole foods and am reading ingredients list more often, but it literally pains me when I the "organic" choice is the healthiest.

DAN_ODEA's comment on the true meaning of organic also resonates with me. ALL food is organic, by the true definition! What a joke! Report
Even *with* the "USDA Organic" seal the buyer must really beware! When organic started becoming a enough of a concern to the mass public, the USDA created the National Organic Program in 2002. Major food companies like Kraft foods, Kellogg, and Coca-Cola and big entities like Walmart pressured the government to lower the standards for certified organic requirements. Under the original organics law, 5 percent of a USDA-certified organic product can consist of non-organic substances, provided they are approved by the National Organic Standards Board. That list has grown from 77 to 245 substances since it was created in 2002. Companies must appeal to the board every five years to keep a substance on the list, explaining why an organic alternative has not been found. The goal was to shrink the list over time, but only one item has been removed so far. The Organic Trade Association, which represents corporations such as Kraft, Dole and Dean Foods, lobbied for and received language in a 2006 appropriations bill allowing certain synthetic food substances in the preparation, processing and packaging of organic foods, creating conditions for a flood of processed organic foods.

Please read more about this in this July 3, 2009 article in the Washington Post, "Purity of Federal 'Organic' Label Is Questioned":
Natural? Organic? I trust the food I plant in my own garden - that is, unless somebody came in the middle of the night under the cover of darkness and contaminated my yard...... Oh, dear!! Report
I also agree with RACINGSLUG. Very good points in her post.
I had to laugh at the end of the article when it said: "Don't eat what you can't pronounce.", as that's what my son has said for years, yet he had no scientiic proof. I am certainly going to show him this article.
A great article and very informing. Report
i agree with "racingslug" because her analysis is spot-on. labels can, indeed, be very confusing, especially regarding claims and nutrition. this is a great blog. thanks for your insights. Report
In his book ''In Defense of Food'' (and to a lesser extent ''Omnivore's Dilemma,'') Michael Pollan attempts to create some simple rules that will significantly reduce the confusion associated with food and food products. One rule that I have found really helpful is ''Avoid foods that make health claims on their packaging.'' His thinking is that carrots, cabbage, apples, etc. do not require nutritional labels because they speak for themselves. The more we stray toward things in boxes and cans that claim to be ''heart healthy'' or claim some kind of nutrient benefit, the more we are eating a food product, something that was processed, stripped of its natural nutrition and then fortified in an incomplete attempt to make up for that loss (enriched flour is a good example.) I try to buy organic, but I remain just as suspicious of packaged organic foods as I am of any other processed food item. Organic potato chips, organic mac and cheese... well, it's still salt and fat. The food industry has no qualms about deceiving consumers, and will tout the health benefits of its food regardless of whether those benefits are real. It's up to us to really examine what we are eating. Report
We can't afford to eat organics all the time. But if it's on sale we will go for it. To us, it's not very critical. Report
it can get complicated to read labels Report
I am aware of the differences in the labeling and have tried for some time to buy as much 100% organic as possible. I always read labels because some 100% organic foods are not necessarily healthy. It makes me feel better about about everything I put into my body. Report
I knew the difference between the natural and organic but I was surprised to see the differences between the organic labeling. Some people argue that buying organic is more expensive than buying regular food. You have to be willing to pay a little more for organic products but it is worth it to me. I would rather give up going to the movies in order to buy a pound of grass fed ground beef or a gallon of hormone free milk. I cannot even remember the last time I purchased meat or chicken at a grocery store. I buy through the locally grown community. Each week I order what I want and it is all grown/raised locally and with out the added costs for shipping the product over hundreds of miles. It is not that expensive and I tend to only buy what we'll use for that week and it keeps me out of the grocery store and away from the very unhealthy junk food! Report
Yes I knew the difference between natural and organic. As far as believing the marketing claims made on food packaging, this is my rule: don't buy food if it comes in food packaging. I don't buy food at the store. I buy ingredients to make my own food. If it has "an ingredient list", I probably won't eat it. Cooking from scratch doesn't take very long as marketing makes you believe - especially once you learn how. See, marketing finds something the pubic wants, or something that is trending high, such as "faster preparation", and then they cash in on it, at your expense - your $ expense, and your health expense. Every bargain has it's price. No thank you.

Also note, "organic" even if sold in whole foods stores or organic stores, is NOT organic if it's an import. In order for the USDA seal to go on it had to be produced from inside the US, and that is the only kind of "organic" I eat.
Organic has many definitions, not the least of which is "pertaining to, involving, or grown with fertilizers or pesticides of animal or vegetable origin, as distinguished from manufactured chemicals: organic farming; organic fruits" (lifted from

As someone who has recently switched fully to organic and whole foods for me and my son, I have to say we notice a difference in quality and taste. And we're also eating very few sweets/desserts, opting for fresh fruit (my son complements with raw-milk cheese). Not to mention, organic and permaculture type farms typically have a lower environmental impact. It's a win-win! Report
Aargh, another corporate hijacking of a word. As a biologist this makes me shudder; organic is anything with some combination of carbon with hydrogen and/or oxygen and/or nitrogen and/or phosphorus (CHONP). The cruddy corn-fed, antibiotic-ridden, caged steer beef is no more or less organic than the wonderful grass-fed, free-range steer beef.

"Natural" makes some sense; there is a difference between fried chicken tenders made from a whole chicken and "chicken nuggets" made in a factory. Don't trust the FDA about what's "natural". HFCS is a by-product of corn production, refined from corn syrup by treating it with an enzyme. You cannot find HFCS on the ground or growing on or in a plant, so it isn't natural; it has to be made. It is, however, organic! Please remember, the FDA is highly politicized, more so over the last eight years but always influenced by politicians and lobbyists.

Here's a few more examples / comments.

- Corn-fed salmon: unnatural (salmon are meat eaters) but organic (they are still fish).
- HFCS: unnatural (must be manufactured) but organic (it's a carbohydrate).
- Plastic fork: unnatural (synthetic) but organic (plastics are hydrocarbon-based).
- Chopsticks: natural and organic.
- Salt: natural but not organic.

I hope this helps.... Report
SHADOZA, I am reading a book that addresses the issue of feeding beef cows corn (which causes many problems for the animal and researches are trying to breed that out of the animals), as well as other issues such as prices in concern to agriculture. I too don't care for the hype but it doesn't mean I don't care to be informed or simply want to be contrary due to a label.

I am reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan. I am not done with it but its very informative. I was also reading "Deep Economy" and other books on farming, conservation, economics etc. And plan on watching the documentary FOOD Inc. (I know every resource isn't perfect but I like to research stuff ^_^) Report
Thanks for the info i also thought that if it said natural it was good for you. Report
I'm with MRSHONEYC. I don't get why a few minutes less in prep time should mean a lot more junk in my food. Cooking is fun for me anyway and I almost never use the microwave. As for labeling, I've seen this info before and am very careful to check ingredient labels before buying. My daughter even does it now - great to know she's developing a good habit early. Thanks for promoting the info - we control our food as a group by the way we shop!! Report