What are the differences between organic and natural foods? How experts and governments take these differences? What typical consumers like you and I need to know? Whether organic and natural are the same foods, or there any phenomenal difference between them? What is the health value of these two signs?
These are common questions when you enter in a grocery shop and see such labels like organic, 100% natural, "All Natural," "Non-GMO," etc. Many consumers do not care for any difference. Some consider these terms to be healthier than 'conventional' food items.
However, it is not the case.
The differences between organic and natural are much bigger than we generally think. They neither purport the same meanings nor equally healthy. Here I am trying to highlight a few key differences between organic and natural foods.
When a food item contains a label of "Organic," it generally means that the food is regulated by government laws. There is a set process from cultivation, harvesting, packing, and handling up to our tables. There are government authorities and auditing agents to keep an eye on the producers, distributors, and sellers.
However, "natural" products are not regulated by the government. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not made any formal definition of the term “natural” so far. But FDA claims to have a longstanding policy for the use of this term in human food labeling.
It considers that human food that is labeled with “natural” does not contain any artificial or synthetic additives. However, there are no specific restrictions as are applied for “Organic foods.”
The certification process for organic produce is a rigorous one. Still, thousands of farmers are investing a lot of money to get certified their products as such. It allows them to sell their food items at higher prices besides getting the confidence of the consumers for their health.
The USDA gives these five steps to get a certification for organic foods in the United States:
STEP 1: Develop an organic system plan.
STEP 2: Implement the organic system plan.
STEP 3: Receive inspection.
STEP 4: Have a certifying agent to review the inspection report.
STEP 5: Must Receive a decision from the certifying officers
On the other hand, “natural” food items don’t need any kind of certification. It may be all-natural or not. Some producers try to avoid synthetic materials, while others may not.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests that if the food is free from artificial flavors, synthetic substances, or artificial colors, it may be labeled as natural. However, the rest is left with the judgment of consumers.
When any farmer decided to convert his production from conventional to organic, he is required to stop using prohibited substances in their farming. You are required to inform the government agencies about your intentions and the last date when you used the prohibiting material. It may be fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals prohibited for organic foods.
According to the USDA, “salt soluble products, urea, sewage sludge, synthetic insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and fertilizers, treated seed, and ammonia derived nitrogen products are included in the lists of prohibited materials.”
When your farm field completes three years, the concerned officers shall test and certify your land, ready to produce organic crops. However, there is no such condition for natural food items.
You can not get a certification for the organic label without eliminating synthetic substances, including fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides.
What is the difference between synthetic and non-synthetic substances?
A synthetic substance is not limited to the chemicals produced artificially. It also includes the extracts from the natural products which change them chemically in the process. However, any change brought with the natural biological process does make them synthetic substances.
However, foods labeled with “natural” food labels need not follow such restrictions. The FDA does not require food producers to explicitly address food production methods or the use of synthetic substances.
The use of Genetically Modified Organism (GMOs) is prohibited in organic products. In other words, an organic farmer can neither plant GMO seeds nor feed his cows with corn, which involved genetic engineering. The organic farmers need a certificate for that effect before labeling their products as organic ones.
You are required not only to eliminate GMOs from your crops but also to take preventive measures to avoid getting pollen from the neighboring farms with GMO crops. You also need to avoid sharing farm equipment with farms using conventional methods. Similarly, you need to use specific processing facilities for your food items. If you still have to share the farming tools, you need to clean them thoroughly to prevent unintended exposure to the GMOs or prohibited substances.
As far as natural food items are concerned, no such requirements are made before you can label your food items as “natural.” You may find such debates that GMOs are safe or not, but the supporters of GMOs have failed to produce any evidence so far for their safety. That’s why the government agencies are so careful when labeling of organic food comes.
The most important aspect of organic food, after health, is adopting the practices which not only maintain biodiversity but also protect the environment. These practices help the organic producers to cycle the resources, promote ecological balances, and conserve biodiversity. The organic farmers use USDA approved substances and follow rigorous action plan before their products are approved as organic ones.
The main goal of the USDA to implement organic practices strictly is to conserve natural resources like soil and water. It asks the growers to plant native vegetation so that various organisms, including bees and bats, are benefited, soil erosion is controlled, and groundwater is recharged. Such practices also protect habitats for birds and mammals and improve diversity in soil organisms. The crop rotation and deep rooting of the cover crops also help them to promote this goal.
However, no such requirement is made from the producers labeling their food items with the word “natural.” You can take any crop as natural or conventional if that is not organic.
We know that organic foods include not only crops but also animals’ meat. The conditions of USDA for certification of such beef are too rigorous.
Organic livestock needs to be managed without any antibiotics and growth hormones. Furthermore, livestock producers are not allowed to use mammalian or avian byproducts. If you intend to get a certificate for your animals, you are supposed not to feed them ingredients like urea, manure, or arsenic compounds, which are prohibited by the USDA. The government agencies audit and ensure that you are maintaining your livestock under the instructions being issued from time to time.
Organic livestock should be managed organically from the last third of the gestation period for mammals and from the second day of life in case of poultry. You are supposed to provide them free access to pastures except under weather conditions. They also need to be fed with organic crops prepared under all conditions given above.
Some readers may object that organic animals may also fall to diseases or parasites. If they are not allowed to use antibiotics, they may die or get seriously sick. The USDA has approved only a few drugs such as vaccines for treatments of such animals. Similarly, some pain medicines and dewormers are allowed if preventive strategies fail. You can find some approved medications for organic animals here.
When livestock contains a label of natural, 100% natural, or all-natural, you must keep in mind that they need not abide by any of these instructions. They may be using natural feeding or permitted medication. However, without an organic certificate, they are like any other conventional product without such labels. In fact, the label “natural” does not make any sense except to allure the customers for unapproved standards.
The list of differences between organic and natural foods can go on. However, these seven differences between organic and natural foods are sufficient to suggest that natural foods are entirely different from organic foods. When you are conscious of your health, biodiversity, and environment, the best option to go for organic products.
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