‘Organic’ versus ‘Natural’ food Labels

Going off of the theme of my last post on “organic” food labeling, there is another food label that is making quite the impression lately. While it may not be as popular, as hip, or as ubiquitous as “Organic”, it is still just as confusing as a label.

The label I’m talking about is the new (well, new as in trending) fad to go “natural”. Which in my mind is a bit ironic. Because going natural evokes the impression of going back in time, right? As in before we used pesticides, enhancers, and ate foods that were pre-packaged months in advance with expiration dates years in the future. Nevertheless, this label, like “organic”, is trying to mold (definitely no pun intended there) the future of our food production and how we keep our environment (not just our bodies) healthy.

So what is going natural? Could it actually mean just that? Is it a food that is just simply, natural? Will we have to wave goodbye to plump juicy watermelons, or contests to grow the largest cucumbers all for the sake of going natural?

Unlike “organic”, which has many different definitions and scopes, natural has practically none at all! According to the U.S Food and Drug Administration, they are currently soliciting definitions of what exactly “natural” even means by asking the public “to provide information and comments on the use of this term in the labeling of human food products.” It has to be super easy to regulate something that you don’t quite understand, right?

But, alas, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has come to the rescue and does in fact have a definition:

“A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).

I guess that is better than nothing? But, like we saw with “organic”, it’s ambiguous. It leaves a lot of wiggle room, a little too much for comfort. Its about as helpful as Netflix in describing a movie in one sentence. They use a lot of fancy words and themes to get your attention, but in the end you have no idea what you just read, and have no clue what the movie is actually about.

What about the price? A recent study by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found some surprising things that have guided our buying choices in the grocery stores when it comes to choosing between “organic” and “natural” (ConsumerReports). In their survey they found that of 1,000 adults surveyed, more are likely to buy “natural” rather than “organic” (73% versus 58”). Additionally, they found that “nearly 70 percent of the people in the survey believe that organic foods are more expensive than “natural” foods.”

Trisha Calvo, with Consumer Reports writes that this survey done in 2016 found that many people also attribute health benefits to “natural” foods that are not entirely true, such as: “no antibiotics, no artificial colors, no GMOs, no synthetic pesticides. Organic means all those things but “natural” does not.”

If you search on the internet for “organic” versus “natural” food labeling, you fill find a lot of hate for the “natural” label, and a lot of it is because of the psychology behind the labeling that Consumer Reports hit on.

Think about when you go to the grocery store.  That “natural” label is usually some nice shade of green with maybe a tree leaf underneath it, or maybe it looks like an old-timey rubber stamp that has been marked on the front in bold letters NATURAL. It’s comforting. It makes me think that whatever has been stamped with that will be good for my body.

And then think of the “organic” label that is probably sitting right next to it on the shelf (regardless of the product). For me, I immediately think about the people that usually promote eating “all-organic” or look down on those who don’t buy “organic” food. They are usually a few tax brackets above me, have a great wardrobe (which is also “organic”) and the Instagram account to prove it.

And that right there is the psychology behind it. Just like all of the fast food restaurants in their choice of colors to advertise and to make themselves look not as gluttonous of calories and trans fats.

BUT because there are all these labels it gets hard to see that “organic” is actually regulated. There are working, albeit not perfect, definitions of what can and cannot be considered “organic”, and there are programs that regularly check if a company is fulfilling these requirements. On top of all that “organic” is not just about the food, either. It is about preserving the environment that the food is being grown in. It is a true look to the future.

In the end, a label is a label. I know that I have taken a side here (a side that I can only sometimes afford unfortunately- yes I did just keep that stereotype going… sorry).

I’m sure glad that labels are there- but they’ve gotten a bit out of hand. I’m not saying go to a system like Beer and Wine where the calorie content and ABV are choices to put on the label, but a regulation that is concise and more straightforward would make shopping a lot easier.

But, until that day comes, it is always best to look past those labels and read the ingredient labels. Make the decision for yourself on whether or not the “organic” is a better quality product and better for the environment than the “natural” one.