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Organic vs. Natural: Is There a Difference?

07.15.22

“All-Natural!” “Natural Flavors!” “It’s Natural!”

Chances are, you’ve seen some of these labels while perusing your favorite grocery store. And as someone who genuinely cares about what you and your family consume, these labels can be tempting. After all, “natural” food is a better option, right? Not necessarily.

Many consumers consider the term “natural” to mean “organic” and vice versa. However, they’re two different things. Perhaps the most important difference is that organic foods must meet strict criteria set forth by the USDA. Not all natural foods do. This means even foods labeled as natural may contain questionable ingredients.

We know food labels can be confusing. That’s why we’ve created this quick guide to help you understand the difference between natural and organic foods. Hopefully, you’ll feel more confident in your choices the next time you shop.

Certified Organic Foods Must Meet Strict Criteria

What’s the key difference between organic and natural foods? Certified organic foods must meet strict requirements set forth by the USDA before they can make an organic claim.

USDA Requirements for Organic Foods

According to the USDA, products that are sold or labeled as “organic” must have at least 95% certified organic content. Products that are sold or labeled as “made with organic ingredients” must be made using at least 70% organic ingredients.

If the ingredients inside are less than 70% organic, the product can only state which ingredients are organic in the ingredients list. And these products don’t receive the USDA Certified Organic seal.

Other USDA standards must also be met involving the farming of ingredients and their production. Plus, there are additional requirements for all poultry and livestock used for products or ingredients. Some of those standards, according to the USDA, are as follows:

  • Farming standards: Land used to farm organic crops can’t have a prohibited substance applied to it for three years before harvest. Organic farmers rely upon crop rotation, cover crops, and dense plantings rather than toxic and persistent pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Plus, the use of genetic engineering and sewage sludge is prohibited.
  • Handling standards: During the production of an organic product, it must be kept away from non-organic products to avoid contamination.
  • Livestock standards: Organic farmers are required to raise animals under organic management systems. This means they must be provided with feed products that are 100 percent organic as well as preventative health practices to keep them healthy. Animals must also have access to the outdoors year-round.

As you can see, becoming a certified organic product through the USDA demands high standards and the humane treatment of animals. And these are only a few of the standards the USDA requires.

To ensure a product is truly organic, the USDA requires that all specific requirements be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be sold. Those applying for certification must also undergo on-site inspections as well as continued certification annually.

What Does the USDA or FDA Say About “Natural” Foods?

None of the above standards apply to foods labeled as “natural.” According to the USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must undergo minimal processing and contain no artificial ingredients. However, there are no standards involving farm practices. And there are zero regulations for labeling natural foods if they don’t contain meat or eggs.

What about the FDA? Although the FDA has sought public comments on how to define “natural,” only minimal standards exist currently. According to the FDA, the term “natural” means that:

“…nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or have been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods…”

Although the FDA has been trying to more clearly define the term “natural,” this is the only guideline that applies to these products currently. When you look at the standards for organic vs. natural products, you can easily see the differences.

What Exactly Are “Natural” Foods?

Natural foods are simply foods that are understood to have no chemical additives, artificial flavors, or preservatives. In some cases, these products may also contain no GMOs or irradiated products, depending on how the product is made. Natural products may also use labels such as “simply” or “plant-based.”

Products labeled as “natural” shouldn’t include commonly used preservatives such as:

  • Benzoic acid
  • Calcium sorbate
  • Potassium nitrate
  • Sodium benzoate
  • Ascorbyl palmitate

They also shouldn’t include artificial flavors or additives that mimic the taste of natural ingredients, such as:

  • Isoamyl acetate: Often used for banana or pear flavors
  • Limonene: Often used for citrus flavors
  • Methyl anthranilate: Often found in artificial fruit drinks such as those that taste like grape

Is Either Natural or Organic Better Than the Other?

When choosing between organic vs. natural foods, it comes down to personal choice. Yet, you should remember that organic foods must meet strict farming practices set forth by the USDA while natural foods do not. If you’re looking to avoid synthetic materials as well as GMOs, artificial colors, non-organic farming practices, and preservatives, organic foods are a better choice.

Always Look At the Label

For a long time, many consumers who wanted to choose healthier options would go to the store and purchase anything that said “natural” on the front label. But it’s best to turn those products around to look at the nutrition facts and ingredients.

For example, many prepackaged snack foods are sometimes labeled as natural, yet still contain artificial flavors, colors, and more. And some meats labeled as natural such as sausage and bacon may still contain preservatives. Always check the label first to make the best decision for you and your family.

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When high-quality ingredients matter to you, our organic soups, broths and beverages deliver on quality and taste. Approved by the USDA as truly organic, you know you’re grabbing the best from your pantry every time you cook. Learn more about our food philosophy or shop Pacific Foods today.