Consumers navigating the grocery store often depend on food labels to help them make the healthiest choice. You may have seen certain items labeled as “organic” and others labeled as “natural”, and thought, “What’s the difference?” It is helpful to know that the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for regulating and supervising food production, does not define the use of the word “natural”. Instead, the FDA allows use of the term as long as the food doesn’t include any added color, artificial color, or synthetic substances.
All of that sounds good, but remember, just because a food or drink doesn’t contain added color or synthetic substances, doesn’t always mean that it is healthy or even a “healthier choice”. Sugar, for example, is all-natural. But, we know that too much sugar can lead to a variety of adverse health outcomes such as diabetes and obesity. If you are deciding between buying a regular soda or a soda that is labeled “all-natural”, you will now know that the all-natural soda isn’t any healthier than the regular soda.
Organic food labels, on the other hand, are clearly defined by the FDA. Foods with an organic label are certified organic and contain at least 95% organic content. This means the food or drink was produced using approved organic farming methods that do not include synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, or irradiation. Organic food products are also not genetically modified and have not been treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. For meat, chicken, and seafood, the organic label also indicates that no hormones or antibiotics have been used.
If you decide to buy organic, look for the label below. This is the official logo used by the FDA. Some manufacturers have other organic labels, but those labels are given by third party agencies, not the FDA. As with the “natural” label, there are unhealthy organic products out there too. You can find organic soda, for example. For this reason, it is important not to think of “organic” as a synonym for “healthy”. Rather, it is an indicator of what is not in your food (i.e. pesticides).
In summary, remember that “natural” has no clear definition and doesn’t truly indicate that a food is any healthier just by being labeled “natural”. Conversely, the “organic” label is clearly defined and is a better indicator of food that contains less additives, hormones, antibiotics, etc. Just because a food is labeled as “natural” or “organic”, doesn’t necessarily indicate that is a healthy food option.