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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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Yes, I understand the difference between natural and organic. I've become something of a obsessive compulsive label reader. LOL !!! eh-hem... however, here's something I've learned whenever I shop for beef.

If the label on the steak you're buying says 100% vegetarian fed, that's not the beef you want to buy. 100% vegetarian are those corn pellet mixes. If you want quality beef, the label needs to say,"100% grass fed". Cows are ruminants. They need to eat grass to be healthy.

So, if I'm buying beef, I try to buy cuts that say,"100% grass fed". It's not cheap, but it's worth it. better quality meat.

But, yeah... I've been noticing how many products now say,"natural". Manufacturers are looking for ways to attract more consumers. They are starting to realize that consumers don't want junk anymore. they want quality food. which is why we are seeing products without all those artificial fillers and chemicals.

You still do have to read the label. That's the only way to know what's really in the product.

I try to buy organic whenever I can. Otherwise, I will read the label to see how natural the product really is.

It's not easy being a consumer these days. You do have to be aware of so many different things. We can't shop the way our grandparents did. No more going to the butcher or baker. When you went to the local butcher, you knew where the meat came from. Not anymore. who knows where that beef is from.

you have to be careful.
absolutely i know the difference and am willing to pay extra for certified organic products and produce. and those marketing claims are awful! they're getting worse too as they are preying on the ignorance of consumers by using deceiving terminology as you pointed out, such as "all natural". like you wrote...take time to read the ingredients! you'll be doing a huge favor for your physical and mental health...not to mention the planet. Report
Since my son has Testicular Cancer, I've been shopping at a Health Food Store and buying organic foods. I've learned so much about what is "HYPE" in a regular grocery store. Report

Keep your blood pressure out of the danger zone with Heinz or Hunt's No Salt Added Tomato Ketchup. Each has ZERO sodium but contain the usual ketchup ingredients: Tomatoes, vinegar, corn syrup, spices, etc. Heinz replaces the salt (sodium choloride) with potassium chloride, which tastes somewhat like salt, but helps lower blood pressure. Hunt's skips the potassium chloride.
Without salt, the ketchups' sweetness registers more clearly on your tastebuds, and the no-salt added have no more calories than the regulars (about 20 calories per tablespoon), which basically makes their addition a freebie.
Heinz: (800) 255-5750
Hunts: (800) 858-6372"
I wish they would stop this "Natural" labeling. Just last night I was shopping and there was a bin of "organic" bread on sale buy one get one free - BUT there was only one loaf with an organic label and all the rest were "Natural". It really annoyed me that as a consumer it was an attempt at being fooled.

This was a great article. Report
Um... fat and calories are healthy -- in moderation. Report
Thanks for the info.... the more you know, the better to decide. Report
The only information I believe on food packaging is what's in the Nutrition Info box and what's in the Ingredients list. Oh, and maybe whatever flavor the item claims to be.

Seeing "organic" on the front of the package, though, *will* cause me to stop, pick it up, and look at the nutrition info to see what the difference is between the organic version and the non-organic version. (This is mostly because I've found a very high percentage of "organic"-labeled foods are significantly lower in sodium than their non-organic counterparts. Huge plus there.)

With that said, I'm still looking for a type of ketchup that has less than 150mg of sodium for a 1-tbsp serving. Haven't found it yet, though. ;) Report
Oh yeah, I knew abt this. There was a show on a local tv abt the natural vs organic thing. I love to get organic stuff from the farmer's market and my #1 rule is: if it doesn't grow on the ground or in a tree, i'm NOT eating it Report
I had no idea the difference between the two! thanks for the info!! I don't really trust any packaging on the products! Report
Great article that cleared up a lot of the food label confusion for me. Thanks! Report
Unless the list of ingredients dictates what the front label says on packaging, no I don't "believe" their marketing strategy. Working in the food industry for 3 years taught me that it's all about eye appeal (notice that most of the foods in your cupboard are in RED packages?) and not so much about health. Even the Quaker instant cereals that promote "healthy heart" have too much junk in them. I'd rather buy just plain old oats and make up my OWN, MUCH healthier oatmeal. Even if it does take a whole 3 extra minutes to prepare ... Report