Natural Vs. Organic: What's The Difference?

Organic shopping is on the rise. More than ever, consumers want to find the best food for their baskets. Yet determining the cleanest produce can be tricky with only some labels controlled by federal regulation. Add in the fact that research from Stanford University reveals organic food is often no more nutritionally dense, and shopping based on just the title becomes even more difficult.

Such a complexity arises from the number of factors from soil to plate. As a result, encompassing sustainability, nutrition, and flavor in a regulated label is difficult. For example, for climacteric (those which ripen after picking) fruits and vegetables, optimal transportation and maturation contribute more to taste than the growing conditions, according to the American Council of Science and Health.

Yet, being an informed shopper does not mean disregarding the label but rather understanding what it encompasses. Sifting through the jargon also leads to sustainability since it's best we have food grown through various processes, says Time. So let's dive in on the debate of natural vs. organic: What's the difference?

Natural food is only regulated for meat and poultry products

In the U.S., two governmental bodies regulate food: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The former oversees meat, poultry, and eggs, while the latter tackles all other consumable products, per Michigan State University.

In its simplest terms, both organizations offer a similar description of 'natural' — food containing no synthetic additives (via USDA and FDA). However, the similarities end there. The USDA goes even further to state that products must be minimally processed and not go through any fundamental alterations. Additionally, the USDA is the only one of the two agencies that requires the moniker to be backed up with an explanation on the label, citing precisely what qualities (like 'minimally processed', or 'no artificial ingredients) to make the product natural, per USDA

The FDA has issued releases stating that it is assessing criteria to define 'natural foods,' but that the agency has not put it into action. Governmental ambiguity has led to an array of lawsuits for both organizations, especially since the USDA doesn't verify what's happening on the farm, only inside processing plants, states The New York Times. Consequently, meat and poultry products are the only ones where there is a verifiable difference with a 'natural' label; everything else is exclusively a marketing term.

Organic foods must meet an array of federally regulated requirements

Although the FDA regulates food in ways such as additives, organic regulation is overseen by a subsidiary of the USDA (via FDA). Several factors go into food being organic-approved, and it can get pretty complicated.

As listed by the USDA, the foodstuffs can't be processed through prohibited methods, like some forms of genetic engineering and radiation. Furthermore, prohibited pesticides and other federally-listed substances can't be used during the growth or processing of the food. And, finally, the foods must be certified through a multi-step organic verification process, which involves both a certifying and inspecting agent.

Sounds like a lot, right? There's certainly much more thorough federal oversight for an organic label than a natural one.

However, organic does not mean that pesticides are not utilized altogether. In fact, the Code Of Federal Regulations lists permitted synthetic additives for organic produce. Additionally, as demonstrated in a study published by the National Library of Medicine, salmonella prevalence is no lower in organic chicken than in conventional methods. Although definitions of organic food being 'cleaner' are up to interpretation, there are undoubted benefits to going organic for specific products. Fruits and vegetables on the Dirty Dozen list tend to have more pesticide residue and benefit from more regulation, while something like wheat may not matter, says Scientific American. Organic is undoubtedly more vetted than natural, but it's up to the consumer whether it's a better buy.