The difference between natural and organic foods

For those of you that are converting to a new healthier diet, it may pay to know the difference between natural and organic.

Difference between natural and organic foods showing a display of fruits veges meats and grains

Eating a healthy balanced diet helps us to stay fit and well, but what is considered healthy these days? What do we look for? Obviously we must avoid processed foods that are full of additives and preservatives. So then we have the choices between natural and organic. Many people consider them to be the same, but that's not necessarily the case! The terms "natural" and "organic" are actually very different.

We looked at what the USDA and the FDA (in the United States) say about natural and organic. Organic foods are heavily regulated, but it seems that there are no set rules regarding foods labeled as "natural". 


The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Organic food has to meet strict regulations by a certifying body such as the USDA. Organic Certification and Accreditation allows a farm or processing facility to sell, label, and represent their products as organic. This confirms that the food (or other agricultural product) has been produced, manufactured, and handled through approved methods. Look for the USDA Organic Seal.  

The USDA states that “Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances”. This means that synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

Organic livestock (cows, sheep, chickens etc.) must be allowed all year round access to the outdoors except under specific conditions (e.g. weather related). They must be raised on organic land, and undergo specific health and welfare standards. The livestock is fed 100% organic feed, and managed without antibiotics or growth hormones. 

If an organic operation (farm or processing facility) violates the organic regulations then it will face enforcement actions.


The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

The FDA hasn't established a formal definition of the term “natural”, although they do have a longstanding policy regarding the use of “natural” on human food labeling.

They consider the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic  (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that wouldn't normally be expected to be in that food.

However, this policy doesn't address food production methods (use of pesticides etc.) or food processing or manufacturing methods such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. Livestock may still have been brought up with the use of antibiotics, and growth hormones. It's still up for debate whether food products containing ingredients produced using genetic engineering or foods containing high fructose corn syrup (a sweetener) may be labelled as “natural”.

The FDA also didn't consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit. 

The United States Department of Agriculture' definition

The USDA says that the term "natural" may be used on labeling for meat and poultry if the product doesn't contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredients.

A product and its ingredients must not be more than minimally processed. Minimally processed may include the physical processes which do not fundamentally alter the raw produce, making food safe for human consumption (smoking, roasting, freezing, drying and fermenting) and/or separating a whole intact food into component parts e.g. grinding meat, separating egg whites and yolks, or pressing fruits to produce juices.

All products claiming to be natural or a natural food should be accompanied by a brief statement explaining what is meant by the term natural. i.e. contains no artificial ingredients.


The difference between natural and organic food is -

  • Organic - Simply put, the food is "as nature intended it to be".  It's guaranteed to be free of pesticides, fertilizers, artificial additives and preservatives, hormones, antibiotics, G.E. and irradiation.       
  • Natural - May be better than other traditional products in the marketplace but that doesn't come with any guarantees. A "natural" label may be misleading and there could be "hidden nasties" in the food. 

Please note - Organic standards vary worldwide so check within your own country regarding their regulations for "organic" labeling.

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