Ask Eartha: Organic, natural — what’s the difference? (column)
July 14, 2016
My wife insists that a product labeled "organic" is better than something labeled as being "natural." Is there a difference, and is she right that one is better than the other? — Nigel, Breckenridge
Let's start with what "organic" means. The guidelines were established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2002 and to claim an item as "organic," producers must pay additional fees and follow strict regulations. Farms that produce organic products cannot use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, must take steps to avoid contamination of products, and use farming techniques that maintain the health of the soil and overall farm environment. An independent agent must inspect the farm and document the requirements are being met. If you want to dig deeper, the USDA's National Organic Program maintains a list updated monthly of operations that have had their organic certifications revoked, (and the reason why), and if any have had their certification reinstated. All of these regulations require great scrutiny and are expensive, explaining why organic products are more expensive.
Let's take a closer look. According to the regulations, organic fruits and vegetables must be grown without the use of synthetically treated chemical pesticides, chemical fertilizers or sewage sludge and genetically-engineered processes which introduce novel proteins, allergens, viruses or toxins or irradiation. Organic beef and chicken means that the animals are fed only 100-percent organic feed, are not the offspring of cloned animals and have never been given growth hormones or antibiotics. Organic milk comes from cows which were fed 100-percent organic feed and were not fed antibiotics, prophylactic drugs or genetically- or synthetically-created growth hormones. Organic seafood is different in that the USDA currently doesn't have guidelines. However, non-organic fish is often caged and treated with pesticides. Organic eggs have been produced by hens which are fed 100-percent organic feed and have never been given growth hormones or antibiotics. (Note: "Cage-free eggs are from hens that have not been confined in cages but may not be able to go outside and therefore are not necessarily "organic".)
As a side note, non-organic chicken farms are pretty awful. NPR recently reported on how Perdue Farms, one of the country's leading poultry companies, is adjusting their policies on the life and death of their chickens. This will range from the company adding windows to their indoor holding pens to utilizing more humane end of life procedures. Their main motivation is consumers, especially millennials, "[who] want to make sure that animals are raised in as caring of a way as possible."
In general, anything with the USFDA "Organic" label means it was produced without artificial grown hormones, high fructose corn syrup, artificial dyes (often made from tar and petrochemicals), artificial sweeteners from chemicals, synthetically-created chemical pesticides or fertilizers, genetically-engineered proteins and ingredients, sewage sludge or irradiation. Think about it in reverse, and anything without the organic label could have any or all of these things.
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You may notice that within the "organic" label there is also "100-percent organic," "organic," and "Made with Organic Ingredients" all of which adds to the confusion. If the label is 100-percent organic then the food doesn't contain any non-organic ingredients. If it is simply "organic" then they must contain 95-percent organic ingredients and the other 5 percent cannot contain growth hormones. "Made with Organic Ingredients" means that the food has at least 70-percent organically-produced ingredients.
There is a loophole in the regulations — small farms that generate less than $5,000 annually from their organic offering are exempt from the official USDA certification requirements. They can use the term "organic" on labels but cannot use the USDA official logo. So if you are really concerned about how your item was produced look for both organic and the USDA logo on the label.
So what does "natural" mean? "Natural" foods have not been officially defined or regulated by the USFDA but they consider the term to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. It does not address food production methods (like farms using pesticides) nor does it consider pasteurization or irradiation. "Natural" foods include synthetic ingredients that may be heavily processed and may include animals raised with antibiotics and growth hormones. For example, many granola bars contain processed sweeteners like corn syrup and cellulose which is made from nontoxic wood pulp or cotton to increase fiber content.
What do you want to put in your body? Natural or organic products? Personally, I'm headed towards the organic aisle.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable food, waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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