Natural & Organic, What’s the Difference?

Just pulled onions

A common misconception exists amongst shoppers when it comes to the labels ‘natural’ and ‘organic’. Most people think that the two are equally safe, healthy and environmentally sound; in reality, they’re vastly different. This common misunderstanding is happily exploited by companies who label products as ‘natural’ leading consumers to believe they’re safe and minimally touched by human processes. This is a form of greenwashing, defined as disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.  Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of this type of palliative marketing, and as a result, researching brands and products more thoroughly before buying. 

Few of us have the time to sit down and research individual ingredients or company’s policies and practices. While it’s disappointing that companies will take advantage of the little time we have for shopping, we’re here to help you understand the meaning behind the labels ‘natural’ and ‘organic’.  Here are some common questions surrounding the labels ‘natural’ and ‘organic’.

What are the labels ‘Natural’ and ‘Organic’ referring to?

Generally speaking, when  ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are used to label food products and any type of skincare or body care product, the labels are referring to how the ingredients were grown and handled during production.  

What does ‘Natural’ mean on food and beauty products?

The FDA oversees and creates regulation around how the term ‘natural’ can be used  on packaging. The current policy for food labeling is that the product cannot contain any artificial or synthetic additive that isn’t expected to be in that product. This regulation doesn’t extend to how food is grown, processed or manufactured, leaving a leeway for companies to use chemical fertilizers on crops of which residue can remain in the product on the shelf, be it a pear or body lotion.  Additionally, the FDA’s regulation of ‘natural’ doesn’t extend to GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) or high fructose corn syrup. Products treated with chemical fertilizers and containing these ingredients can still be legally labeled as ‘natural’. 

What does ‘Organic’ mean on food and beauty products?

Alternatively, how the term ‘organic’ can be used on products labeling is regulated and monitored by the National Organic Program (NOP), the federal regulator overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Unlike ‘natural’, there is no grey area when labeling a product or ingredient as ‘organic’.

When a product carries the USDA Organic seal, the farmer, grower, rancher or producer must follow strict organic guidelines. In short, these guidelines ensure that food and agricultural products are being grown, raised and/or processed without the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, GMOs, parabens or antibiotics. 

Organic growing methods also promote conservation of natural resources, biodiversity and an overall healthier environment.

There are four different categories for labeling organic products defined by the USDA:

  • 100% organic – the product only contains organically produced ingredients
  • Organic – the product contains at least 95% organically produced ingredients
  • Made with organic ingredients – requires at least 70% of the ingredients to be organic. These products cannot display the USDA Organic seal.
  • Less than 70% organic ingredients – these products also can’t display the USDA Organic seal, or use the word organic on packaging, but they can identify which ingredients are organic in the ingredient list.

Are natural products safe?

The best way to ascertain whether or not a packaged product that is labeled natural is safe is to read the ingredient list. If you’re shopping from a small business, ask the maker more questions to understand the methods they use to craft their products. 

For fresh food, meat and dairy products, it’s safer to avoid products marketed as natural and opt for organic unless you can research the farmer/grower or ask them questions directly.

It’s important to note that the organic certification process may be cost prohibitive for small businesses. In these cases, it’s always important to ask to ensure you have all the information you need to make a decision you can feel safe and comfortable with. Shopping from local farms at your farmer’s market is a great way to meet the people who are growing your food and to speak with them directly. 

Questions to ask a maker:

  • Ask about specific ingredients if you’re not sure about one.
  • Where do they source their raw ingredients? 
  • How do they verify the growing methods used by their suppliers?
  • How do they make the products? 

Questions to ask a grower:

  • Do you spray the produce with anything? If so what do you use?
  • What type of fertilizer do you use?
  • Do you use GMO seeds?
  • What do you feed your animals? 
  • Do you treat your animals with antibiotics?
  • How are the animals kept?

While these questions aren’t foolproof, it’s a good way to start a conversation and gain insight into a brand or farm you want to support.  Understanding the difference between ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ is important when you’re trying to eat clean food and use safe products. If you have any doubts about a product and don’t have time to do some research, the best thing to do is choose organic. Only certified organic products give you the guarantee that they were made using environmentally sound methods which are safe and healthy for you and your family.

Author Details

Jen Culler Liepis

Jen is the founder of Love Local.