What’s the difference between organic foods and natural foods? Are there nutritional differences? Which foods are better for our health?
How is it defined?
In the United States, the difference between natural and organic foods originated from an official definition set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the year 2000. The USDA published its official position on organic foods at that time and implemented guidelines for strict supervision and legal regulation of organic foods. In order to be labeled “organic,” the food must have been grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (with some rare exceptions), antibiotics, irradiation, genetic engineering, or growth hormones. According to the USDA, the label “organic” refers to products that are produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. Additionally, organic farming involves growing systems that enhance biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.
Organic foods are federally regulated but “natural” foods have no legal or federal supervision and are not defined by any law or criteria. While the USDA does require that products list their ingredients in descending order of concentration, there is no official stipulation for the amount of natural ingredients a food must contain to be deemed as such. A food labeled “natural” implies that it contains less preservatives and chemical additives, however since there is no federal regulation it is totally the responsibility of the consumer to read the label and make that determination for himself or herself.
For example if a granola bar or fruit bar contains only certified organic ingredients it may be labeled as 100% organic. If it contains 95% organic ingredients, it may also be labeled as organic. If the bar is 70% organic, it may be labeled as “made with organic ingredients.” Anything below this, however, does not have the right to be labeled “organic” or carry the USDA organic seal. If the majority of the ingredients are natural, it could be labeled “natural” but still contain a large amount of added refined sugars, corn syrup, preservatives, food coloring, and chemicals.
Is there a nutritional difference between conventional, natural, or organic foods?
Recent studies show that there are nutritional differences between organic, natural and conventional foods. Data from “New evidence confirms the nutritional superiority of plant-based organic foods,” by Charles Benbrook, et. al. The Organic Center, March 2008, shows significant differences in nutritional value. Organic foods were significantly superior in antioxidants (88% of organic foods had higher antioxidant levels, compared to 13% of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables). Other nutrients (Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Phosphorus and Potassium) were also significantly higher than conventionally grown foods.
What is the best practice?
A product labeled organic isn’t necessarily better than one labeled natural or conventional. Because of tight regulations, some local products might not qualify for the organic label due to the fees and size of the operation, and/or they might be waiting for their organic certification, even though they are using organic practices. Therefore, it is always best to ask questions of the farmer or produce worker at a Farmer’s Market or grocery store. Carefully read all labels of products identified as “natural” or if it says “made with organic ingredients” check to see which ingredients are not organic to determine any artificial ingredients or excessive processing. Check for NonGMO label as well and asked if the product has been genetically modified or altered with growth hormones.