Organic is Not the Same as Natural – Know the Difference

Eating healthy seems hard, you can take all the efforts to cook a variety of foods from various groups, but you may still be doing damage to your health. This damage can be attributed to the production process of your ingredients. While browsing the aisles of the supermarket, you will be bombarded with terms within the health foods zone such as ‘natural’, ‘gluten-free’, ‘organic’ and so on. Some food items suspiciously have all three labels slapped on them which may make you feel as though you’re purchasing the healthiest food on the block but don’t be fooled, this is just a marketing strategy and has little to do with the adoption of processes and regulations. To understand this better, let’s zoom into two words in particular, ‘organic’ and ‘natural’. Are they the same? In short, no. Although these two processes may sound similar to a layman, there are a few key differences that you must consider before you decide which is better for you.

1) The definition itself

The very meaning of these terms used in the context of products differs. Organic foods refer to foods which are produced using calculated, artificial ingredients which enhance the quality of the food. For example, most vegan nut milk is fortified with B-12 because plant-based diets are lacking in this vitamin. This is a healthy addition that helps vegans and lactose intolerant people meet their daily nutritional requirements without compromising on their ethical and lifestyle choices. Organic foods must pass stringent quality checks which include evaluations of the machinery, processes, raw ingredients and environmental impact studies. You may notice some organic products may also have a label which says ‘fair trade’, this means that the product is organic, and the materials used to create it were sourced responsibly, sustainably and ethically. Natural foods, on the other hand, are those foods that are minimally processed and synthesized but have no guarantee of the manufacturing and handling process. So in a nutshell, organic products have a strict set of rules and regulations and are monitored by third-party organizations whereas natural products retain their natural form as far as possible, but have no guarantee in terms of the production process. You just have to take the brand’s word for it!

2) The ‘certified’, healthier option

What’s the healthier option- eating a store-bought, organic granola bar, or, consuming a handful or raw dates, almonds, figs, and oats? Most people would think that the natural ingredients may be healthier, but they overlook factors such as hygiene, the growing process and the sustainability. The granola bar may just be the healthier option, even though it may appear “unnatural”. Besides the loopholes in the production process, organic is better in this department because getting your product “certified organic” is a huge deal, and is extremely hard to obtain. Certification bodies exist in most countries, however, the most widely recognized, international body is the USDA, or the United States Department of Agriculture. When buying a product, look for the labels “USDA approved” and certified organic. The USDA takes on full responsibility for the authenticity of the products that it certifies so you can rest assured that what you’re consuming has gone through a top-notch production process. There are no such regulatory bodies for natural foods.

3) Hard-earned labels

If you look closely, organic food labels differ from natural ones since the processes are double-checked by a third party. You can’t say the same for natural foods. Anyone can put a label saying 100% natural because there are no governing bodies to monitor and verify these things. If you’ve studied nutrition labels closely, you may have noticed fruit juice brands which say ‘natural’ fruit juice, but if you read the fine print, you’ll always find a disclaimer that states “contains no real fruit”. This is how some brands are sneaky and market their products as “natural” because most people will blindly buy them thinking that they’re ‘natural’. In the case of organic products, it can take years to get certified, and once you are, you can expect surprise quality checks at any time!

4) The product itself

Experts suggest that organic foods are much healthier, more hygienic, and are safer to consume than natural foods. This is because of the production process. Organic foods follow processes which eliminate the use of toxic pesticides, GMOs, antibiotics and other harmful substances. In the case of organic fruits and vegetables, the soil used is absolutely safe and free from these harmful chemicals and growth enhancers. When you buy ‘natural’ products, on the other hand, you can never be sure about the production process. Did you know that animals are pumped with growth hormones, antibiotics and in case of dairy cows, estrogen and testosterone? Not only is this incredibly cruel from an ethical perspective, but this is also highly dangerous to human health. Organic meat production eliminates all this, organic meats are free range, grass-fed and are not pumped with any hormones or fatteners. Same goes with vegetables.

5) Shelf life

Do you associate the shelf-life with the quality and health of a food? This is a rookie mistake. Just because some foods have a very long shelf life does not mean that they’re unhealthy, and vice versa. Organic foods have a higher shelf life due to the presence of the permitted preservatives and packaging practices. These processes do not affect the overall health and nutritional value of the food, they only help preserve it. Most natural foods are perishable, but this is not a sign of freshness because one can never be sure of the production process itself. What’s the point of having a super fresh vegetable if it was pumped with chemicals in order to grow? One can also never be sure of the storage conditions of natural foods. All this is eliminated with organic food because of the third party regulators.

6) Legal implications

Did you know that there are legal repercussions for misusing the ‘organic’ label? Brands must be certified by a regulated body to be able to call themselves ‘organic’.  This is not the case with natural foods, anyone can slap on a ‘100% natural’ label on a product since there are no active governing regulatory bodies to rectify this.

So which is the healthier option for YOU? A healthy, well-planned, balanced and informed diet can consist of both, organic and natural foods, as long as they are responsibly sourced. When it comes to things like vegetables, growing your own food is your best bet, but that may not be plausible for everyone. If you can, try to opt for organic vegetables and meat as far as possible because these are the foods that contain the most toxic elements such as pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics and getting the organic variant ensures that the food you buy is free from these harmful chemicals.

Organic Living Part II – The Organic Food Story

Organic food, until some time back, could only be sourced from certain health stores. Since these foods did not find any shelf space in the supermarket, it presented a dilemma to those people who wanted to adopt an organic diet and move away from processed or hybrid produce. Today is a different story altogether. From your local farmer’s market to the supermarket in your locality, all have a clearly marked organic food aisle. Clearly, it’s the dynamics of demand and supply. The demand for organic foods has compelled supermarkets to make it more accessible.

Some time back, we wrote a post on organic living and what it entails. It only made sense to give a little more insight into organic living and write about organic food to help consumers understand its subtle nuances and then make informed dietary decisions.

To start the conversation let’s understand that ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are not the same and most certainly are not interchangeable terms. Organic farming practices promote soil and water conservation and aim to be environment-friendly. They use natural fertilizers to feed the soil and use crop rotation or mulch to control weeds. Farming of ‘natural foods’, on the other hand, may or may not use pesticides and fertilizers. Natural foods are generally minimally synthesized and have no stringent standards of certification simply because of the lack of strict guidelines to enable the same.

In most cases it is assumed that natural foods are minimally processed and do not contain antibiotics, artificial flavors and hormones. So if you are looking to buy fruits and vegetables that do not contain any toxic synthetic pesticides, chemical petroleum based fertilizers, toxic synthetic herbicides and no hormones then only organic foods guarantee this.

Having established the difference between natural and organic, we also need to say that organic doesn’t extend to the vegetarian section of the aisle. Meat produce such as poultry, cattle, and pigs etc. too can be organic. So what makes meat organic? The principles essentially remain the same.

* There should be no use of growth hormones or antibiotics in raising poultry, cattle or beef

* The animals must be raised on certified organic land

* They should consume organic feed that is free from pesticides and hormones

* They should have outdoor access and should not be bred in captivity

Just like the vegetarian section, there’s confusion between natural and organic meat. To begin with, for meat to be labeled organic, the animals have to have access to direct sunlight, fresh air, have clean bedding and an opportunity to exercise. Natural or traditionally bred livestock might or might not have access to all or none of these. Often livestock reared traditionally live in such close quarters that they have no place to move. Chickens are cooped up in cages one on top of the other.

Secondly, unlike conventionally raised poultry and livestock, organically raised livestock and poultry are not fed plastic pellets or formulas that contain slaughter by-products, manure, and urea. Organic poultry is not fed any genetically engineered grains, antibiotics and hormones for growth. They are also raised organically no later than two days after they hatch.

The other category of chicken is the Free Range Chicken. Unlike organic chicken, the only consideration of Free Range chicken is that the poultry has ‘free, continuous access to the outdoors for more than half of their lives’. Free Range producers can feed their poultry standard feeds that are used in conventional production units. Seeds and grains for Free Range Chicken can contain synthetic amino acids and feedstuffs which have been solvent extracted.

Animals and poultry reared for non-organic meat are often given antibiotics and growth hormones. While these antibiotics seemingly do not affect the nutritional component of the meat, they can easily enter the bodies of the people consuming this meat. Increased exposure to such hormones has seen to increase incidences of thyroid problems, endometriosis, cancer, allergies, asthma, uterine fibroids etc. Antibiotics in the food of animals can cause resistant bacteria strains which can disrupt and damage healthy human gut bacteria.

So if you believe in the philosophy of ‘we are what we eat’ then it’s time to give organic food a serious thought. After all, organic foods, both fruits and vegetables, and meat and poultry are reared and produced using the highest quality of control. While organic food might be more expensive on the pocket it is only so because of the exhaustive and extensive practices that go into making them not only safe and good for our bodies but sound for the environment as well.

So what have you decided? Will you be taking the organic turn?