Organic Versus Natural: Is There a Difference?

This is Part 3 of a Series.

Natural and organic products once only lined specialty store shelves. Today, every supermarket’s shelves hold dozens of items with product labels that proudly proclaim their wholesome, natural origins. Although you might think of organic and natural as synonyms, they have dramatically different meanings to manufacturers. As the demand for organic foods, cosmetics and household products rises, differentiating between the two is vital to becoming a more informed consumer.

According to the Organic Trade Association, 78 percent of American households purchase organic foods. Almost half the buyers OTA polled believed that organic foods were a healthier choice and opted for them over conventionally grown items. Despite facing lean economic times, many of the shoppers polled were willing to spend more for products they perceived as safer. Food growers and manufacturers want a share of this burgeoning market.

However, not every product can lay claim to organic product labels. The United States Department of Agriculture places stringent requirements on organic items. Every step of a food’s production from farm to table must meet government standards.

To bear an organic label, a food must come from seed stock that has undergone no genetic modifications beyond cross-breeding. It must grow in soil free from conditioners and pesticides made from petroleum products or sewage sludge. It undergoes no irradiation and contains no synthetic preservatives, although natural preservatives such as ascorbic acid are permitted if they come from an organic source. Meats and poultry must come from animals that ate organic grain and received no growth hormones or antibiotics during their lives; the animals must also be able to move about freely.

A product that consists of at least 95 percent organic ingredients can bear the circular “USDA Organic” label. If the product contains between 70 and 95 percent organic ingredients, manufacturers can legally describe it as being made from organic ingredients, but it cannot carry the coveted organic label. These regulations apply to products with sales of greater than $5,000 annually, according to the National Organic Program, so some locally distributed products are exempt.

By contrast, a product label that describes the contents as “natural” could have little meaning. While most manufacturers use it to describe products free of artificial ingredients, texture agents and synthetic preservatives, others use it to describe products of less certain provenance. A partially hydrogenated vegetable oil may have a natural or organic source, but the steps involved in hydrogenation would not pass muster as an organic process. Such oil is permissible in a natural product, but could not make up more than 5 percent of an organic product’s ingredient list.

For produce, cosmetics and packaged foods, the government currently provides no legal definition of the term; this leaves manufacturers free to use the term as broadly as they choose. The Food Marketing Institute notes that naturally produced meats and poultry do adhere to specific legal guidelines; however, they are not the same as the more stringent organic regulations. Naturally raised meat contains no artificial colors, flavoring agents or preservatives. However, the term makes no promises about hormones or antibiotics in the meat, nor does it address how the animals lived.

It’s worth noting that Harvard Health Publications’ Health beat considers buying organic a wholly personal choice. According to researchers there, no evidence has yet come to light that shows organic products to be healthier than conventional products.

The next time you wander the aisles in your local supermarket, compare natural, organic and conventional products; you may find some surprises. Believe ingredient panels and nutrition information over any claims on the front of the box. Colorful packaging may contain attractive partial truths, but ingredient lists can’t lie.

Coming next week: Tips To Living Gluten Free on a Budget

Bio: Jessica is a specialist in product labels. When she is not writing for, you can find her cooking up a storm in her kitchen.

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