Until recently, I didn’t know that there was much of a difference between foods labeled natural and organic. Many people may think they are the same thing or will assume that because something is labeled as “Natural” (“All Natural”, “100% Natural”, etc.) that it is minimally processed and/or without hormones, antibiotics, and artificial flavors. Well there is a difference and it’s a BIG ONE!

In the US, the FDA and the USDA have vague rules and regulations for products labeled “natural”. The FDA official policy is that “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances,” (1) an ambiguous policy that leaves interpretation of “natural” largely up to the food industry. What’s worse is that the “natural” standards vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so you never truly know what they mean by “natural”. If you are purchasing a product labeled “natural”, look for additional claims like non-GMO, no antibiotics administered, or no hormones. There are some products labeled “natural” that use organic practices, but their operations are too small to go through the process of becoming certified organic (due to fees associated with the certification). Carefully read the ingredients of products to search for any artificial ingredients or excessive processing. If you don’t recognize an ingredient, be cautious.

In contrast to the FDA, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does regulate use of the word “natural” when applied to meat, poultry, and eggs, stating that a “natural” food is “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed” (4). Although consumers purchasing “natural” meat, poultry, and eggs can be confident that there are no artificial ingredients or colors added, it's important to note that “natural” does not necessarily mean hormone-free or antibiotic-free; these are separate labels, also regulated by the USDA. Be wary when it comes to cage-free eggs as well. If the label does not say “pasture-raised”, the chickens may not be caged but also may not be ranging very far….

On the other hand, the term “organic” is tightly regulated and means food was produced under approved methods and is free of synthetic fertilizers. Organic products must have the USDA Organic label on them, as shown in the picture. There are many qualifications a product must meet to be classified as organic. For starters, the product must be at least 95% organically produced and processed ingredients. Companies seeking the seal and making the switch to organic must undergo a rigorous three year process. The use of toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering and sewage sludge are prohibited.

Bottom line, pay close attention to the ingredient lists or choose organic foods. You could be paying more for something that you thought was all natural, when really you just fell for their marketing gimmick.