Our guide to the food-label name game, and tricks used to cheat
What do “natural” and “organic” really mean?
And do foods bearing those labels enhance or protect health?
When it comes to organic foods, answer is a clear, resounding “yes”.
Sadly, the situation with foods that bear a “natural” label isn’t nearly so clear-cut
Let’s take a closer look at three commonly applied — but often confusing or misleading — terms: natural, organic, and biodynamic.
“Natural” can be meaningful or pure nonsense
Marketers want people to believe that foods labeled “natural” are healthier, free of artificial ingredients, and made without genetically modified foods (GMOs).
However, while those attributes may apply to a food whose label says “natural”, none are necessarily true of any particular product.
That’s because there are no U.S. regulations that define the term “natural” when it comes to food labels.
All attempts to legally define the term have failed, due to the debatable nature of the term, and sharp disagreements over the “naturalness” of ingredients.
For example, xylitol is a sweet alcohol compound found in plants, but it can also be synthetically produced. So, is a food that contains synthetically produced xylitol natural or not?
Likewise, virtually all the vitamin C (ascorbic acid) used in supplements or added to foods is produced synthetically. Does that make those foods and supplements unnatural?
There are countless other ingredients whose eligibility for inclusion in “natural” products remains the subject of legitimate debate among well-intentioned people.
The synthetic versions of naturally occurring ingredients are often chemically identical to their naturally-derived counterparts — and are typically much cheaper, making them more attractive to manufacturers.
In reality, there’s nothing to keep any manufacturer from using the term “natural” on a food label, even if it’s junky fare, full of refined carbs, sugars, salt, and ingredients whose “naturalness” is open to question.
In other words, if you want healtheir foods you'll need to read ingredient and nutrition labels closely — and to avoid GMOs, you'll need to purchase only certified-organic packaged foods, and whole foods that have no FDA-approved GMO versions.
However, the term “organic” on a food label can mean different things: see Organic and “organic-ish”, below.
Natural meats and poultry: An exception to the rule of no rules
Meats and poultry are exceptions to the “no-regulation-of-natural” situation.
However, when it comes to meat and poultry, the “natural” label doesn’t mean quite what you might think or want.
For one thing, USDA regulations allow the use of growth-promoting antibiotics and hormones in the raising of meats or poultry labeled “natural”.
Antibiotics are commonly fed to conventionally raised pork and poultry to accelerate their growth — thereby cutting production costs — and hormones are commonly administered to beef for the same reason, but are not allowed in poultry or pork.
These are the USDA rules governing use of the terms “natural”, “no hormones”, and “no antibiotics” on meat and poultry product labels:
- Natural: Contains no artificial ingredients or added colors and is only “minimally processed”, meaning that the product was not “fundamentally altered”. The label must list the reasons for the claim, such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”.
- No Hormones (pork or poultry): Hormones are not permitted in raising hogs or poultry, so the claim "no hormones added" can only be used if it’s followed by “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
- No Hormones (beef): This label claim may be used if the producer provides supporting documentation to the USDA.
- No Antibiotics (red meat and poultry): This label claim may be used if the producer provides supporting documentation to the USDA.
A large proportion of conventionally produced milk comes from cows that have been given bovine growth hormone (bGH) — also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) — to boost milk production, but this practice can cause udder infections (mastitis) and other illnesses in cows.
Following a fight with federal food regulators, operations that don't use bGH were finally allowed to to say so on their milk products.
By the way, a “cholesterol-free” claim on a product that consists entirely of plant foods — which never contain cholesterol – is entirely misleading.
Organic and “organic-ish”
Organically produced foods carry far fewer pesticide residues, and some provide more vitamins, minerals, and/or antioxidants that their conventional counterparts.
Organic agriculture gained official status with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, but it took years for farmers and the USDA to agree on the lists of allowed and prohibited ingredients, pesticides and agricultural methods.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will certify a food as “organic” if it is grown, stored, and processed without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or other harmful chemicals in or on soil for at least three years prior to harvest.
The short list of natural pesticides allowed on organic farms includes safe, rapidly degrading things like neem oil (used in natural toothpastes), potassium salts, pyrethrum (from chrysanthemum) and the bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensism (Bt) — which are vastly safer than the synthetic pesticides used on conventional farms.
Bt bacterium produce crystalline proteins that can kill insects that consume these microbes, and some crops are genetically modified to produce Bt-type crystalline proteins internally.
Organic farms undergo regular inspections to ensure that they meet these standards — including no use of growth-promoting antibiotics or hormones in animals, and no genetically engineered seed or stock.
And, to earn the “certified organic” label, a food must be free of genetically modified ingredients.
USDA regulations for organic foods define three categories of products:
- 100% organic — All of the product’s ingredients must be certified organic. These products can display the USDA Organic seal.
- Organic — At least 95% of the product’s ingredients must be certified organic, and those ingredients must be identified on the label. These products can display the USDA Organic seal.
- Made with Organic [fill in the blank] — At least 70 percent of the product must consist of certified-organic ingredients. The other 30 percent cannot be genetically modified or appear on the USDA’s “exclusion” list. These products must identify their organic ingredients, and they're not permitted to display the USDA Organic seal.
Here’s how curious shoppers can use the PLU code number displayed on a fruit or vegetable’s bag or stickers on to determine whether it’s organic, conventional, or GMO:
- Conventional: 4 numerals.
- Organic: 5 numerals, starting with “9”.
- Genetically modified: 5 numerals starting with “8”. Note: By law, genetically modified fruits and vegetables cannot be labeled organic.
Going organic can also pack some real health-protection benefits. Because organic foods are produced without synthetic pesticides and herbicides — many of which were originally developed as nerve toxins for use in warfare — you're less exposed to these neurotoxic, sometimes carcinogenic, chemicals.
Additionally, many — though not all — studies have shown that organic fruits, vegetables, and grains provide higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants.
For example, see Organic Crops Offer More Antioxidants, Organic Crops Win for Antioxidants ... Again, Organic Food Gets a (Bogus) Mixed Review, Organic Milk Found Richer in Omega-3s, Strawberries Curb Cancer Cell Growth; Organic Berries Called Best, and Organic Crops' Nutrition Advantage.
Differences in the findings of various studies designed to detect nutritional differences between conventional and organic produce may trace to differences in the soil quality of the organic farms being compared to conventional farms.
It takes years for soil quality to substantially improve in response to application of organic fertilizers, use of crop rotatio, and other techniques.
People who take a particularly spiritual view of food production are attracted to crops produced by biodynamic farms. For more on that, see “Biodynamic farming: Organic agriculture with a mystic twist”, below.
When does organic make the most sense? A shopper’s guide
Although prices for organic foods continue to decline, it’s still quite a bit more costly to always choose certified organic products.
We recommend these rules of thumb for deciding when to pick organic foods over their conventional counterparts.
Because pesticides tend to accumulate up through the food chain, it makes sense to go organic when you’re choosing meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy.
There are also “certified-organic” salmon farms, whose products should be free of the pesticides commonly administered to conventional farmed salmon to control sea lice.
However, salmon farms can damage wild salmon and the local marine environment, most farm-raised salmon are fed pesticides designed to kill sea lice, and most farmed salmon possess inferior nutritional profiles.
In addition to fish meal or fish oils, farmed salmon are fed grains, which results in much higher, pro-inflammatory levels of omega-6 fatty acids, compared with wild salmon (see Farmed Salmon's Diet Yields Unhealthful Cardiovascular Effects).
Fruits and vegetables
If you want to eat the nutrient-rich skin on a fruit or vegetable, it’s best to buy organic.
Conventionally grown produce is safer if you either peel the skin — which removes valuable nutrients and antioxidants — or wash the item.
A recent study by scientists from the University of Massachusetts Pesticide Analysis Laboratory found that a solution of baking soda and water was more effective than plain water or a bleach solution (Yang T et al. 2017).
Add 1 tsp of baking soda to each quart of water, and then wash the produce in plain water to remove any residual baking soda which is safe but tastes salty.
The Environmental Working Group publishes an annual list of the “dirtiest” and “cleanest” fruits and vegetables, in terms of pesticide residues. We conveyed and commented on their most recent list (which changes very little year to year) in The Dirty Dozen & Clean Fifteen: 2016 Edition.
An organic label on packaged foods should mean that it contains much lower levels of (or no) pesticide residues.
But an organic label guarantees nothing about a product's overall healthfulness, because many packaged organic foods are quite high in refined carbs, salt, and/or sugars.
Organic packaged foods will not knowingly contain GMOs, and are much less likely to contain high fructose corn syrup or trans fats.
Local versus organic
Fruits and vegetables lose vitamin value fairly rapidly after they’re harvested.
So, a certified organic fruit or vegetable may provide significantly lower levels of vitamins, versus a locally grown, conventionally produced counterpart that’s consumed within a day or two.
For example, fruits and vegetables can lose half of their vitamin C value within a few days, and spinach loses almost half (47%) of its folate (a key B vitamin) after eight days post-harvest.
Most fruits and vegetables are grown hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they’re sold — something that’s especially true of produce that’s not locally in season.
And fruits or vegetables may sit on the supermarket shelf for days or even weeks before being purchased.
Many studies show that freezing and canning preserve the nutrients in produce quite effectively, and refrigeration slows nutrient loss, versus storing produce at room temperature.
Biodynamic farming: Organic agriculture with a mystic twist
Like organic foods, “biodynamic” foods are raised without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
Biodynamic farms also employ standard organic farming practices to fertilize and protect soil, such as crop rotation and use of compost or manure.
But biodynamic farming — which pre-dates the organic movement by about 20 year — applies additional, distinctly esoteric standards.
In 1924 — prompted by requests from locals concerned about the future of farming — prominent Austrian philosopher/spiritualist Rudolf Steiner delivered a series of lectures in which he proposed that farms should be viewed as holistic organisms that operate in harmony with nature.
Steiner arrived at his recommended farming methods through meditation and "clairvoyance", rather than scientific experimentation. And he invited farmers to test their efficacy, of which he felt certain.
Steiner’s spiritual experiences led him to describe eight quasi-homeopathic “preparations” that he believed would make soil optimally nurturing for crops.
Two of his exotic preparations consist of cow manure or silica packed into cow horns, buried for several months, swirled in warm water, and then applied to fields. (Steiner believed that cow horns would receive and focus cosmic forces and transfer them to the materials inside.)
The six other preparations consisted of plant extracts packed into the skulls or organs of animals, or into peat or manure, where they're aged before being diluted and applied to compost.
Steiner believed that these eight preparations would carry “terrestrial and cosmic forces” and impart them to crops and to the people that consume them.
Steiner also proposed that crop diseases signaled imbalances or other problems in the farm “organism” as a whole.
Steiner delivered his lectures long before synthetic pesticides came into use, and biodynamic farmers presume that their use would violate his (and their own) principles.
Lastly, biodynamic farms rely on the alleged cyclical and seasonal influences of the sun, moon, planets, and stars to pick the best times to plant, cultivate, and harvest.
Attempts to scientifically validate the benefits of biodynamic techniques have proven near-impossible, because it’s difficult to differentiate the outcomes of biodynamic farming from those of normal, non-mystical organic farming (Kirchmann H 1994; Chalker-Scott L 2004).
Although biodynamic farming has spread to some 60 countries, Germany remains its center, and hosts almost half of all the acreage being farmed biodynamically.
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- European Union. Report on Animal Welfare Aspects of the Use of Bovine Somatotrophin (PDF). The Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare. March 10, 1999. Accessed at https://web.archive.org/web/20080904003449/http://ec.europa.eu/food/fs/sc/scah/out21_en.pdf
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- Penn State University. Storage time and temperature effects nutrients in spinach. March 18, 2005. Accessed at http://news.psu.edu/story/211232/2005/03/18/storage-time-and-temperature-effects-nutrients-spinach
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