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Organic Versus All Natural Foods

In general, when people begin to start wanting to eat healthy and clean up their food, there is tons of confusion about the terms organic and all natural. We see them strewn around the store like candy, but yet many people do not know what, if anything, they mean. I'm writing this blog to help try and explain the two labels, and I welcome any and all questions. I'm no expert by any means, so take my information with that in mind, but I can usually find the answer to a question if I don't know it myself.

Organic is a term that is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture. The definition, according the USDA website is, "Organic production is a system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 (PDF) and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. The National Organic Program (NOP) develops, implements, and administers national production, handling, and labeling standards." (read about Organic Certification here). 

Basically that means that in order to label something "organic" the company must comply with all USDA regulations, including how the ingredients are grown and what goes into the product. To get the label 100%, the products must contain only organic produced ingredients and processing aids (except for water and salt). For them to get the label "organic," they must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients and processing aids (again excluding water and salt).  Any product that displays the label "organic" or "100% organic" must not be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, genetic engineering, growth hormones, or ionizing radiation. 

A product can also have the label "made with organic ingredients." This means that they must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, and they may list up to three of the organic ingredients on their front panel (for example, "made with organic flour, tomatoes, and cheese" for something like a pizza). However, they may not use the USDA organic seal on their label, and they cannot advertise the item as an organic item, except in the listing of the organic ingredients used.

Getting organically certified is an expensive and time consuming task, and often times local farmers are not able to get "certified organic" because of the cost. However, if something in your grocery store has the label on it to the left of this article, then you can rest assured that it is organic, and (in my opinion) worth the price difference for the lack of pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, etc that are absent from its production, as well as the (in theory...this is not true is all cases) more environmentally friendly growing practices.

All natural, in contrast, can mean a wide variety of not well regulated things. According to research done by Mintel International, "'all natural' was the second-most common claim on food products launched in 2008" (Chicago Tribune Article).  However, there is not currently a certification body for "all natural" items, and no legal standardization of the term, so this is basically left up to the company to define, which can be a very dangerous thing. 

In general, companies use the term to state that the all natural product is less processed than its "non natural" counterpart, and that it may not contain preservatives. They are not necessarily pesticide or cruelty free, and unless it also has the USDA organic label, you can safely assume they are not certified organic. 

In order to assure that you are receiving something that is worth the extra money you are spending, your best bet would be to buy organic. Because of the lax regulations of "all natural" products, unless you are very knowledgeable about label reading and ingredient lists (in which case you probably already know everything I've talked about here), you may or may not really be getting anything extra for the extra money. As mentioned before, the all natural market is huge, and it has continued to expand as people are getting more aware of conventional farming methods and the problems in our industrial agriculture. However, in general, "all natural" is really just a great marketing scheme -- companies are able to make very little, if any, change to their products, and they label it all natural which dupes people into thinking the product is healthier. As I mentioned before, if you are a seasoned label reader and you know your natural from your non natural ingredients like the back of your hand, perhaps you can find all natural items that fall within the standards of what you want to put in your body. For the rest of us, however, the only sure way to guarantee that you are eating something that has not been grown with pesticides and the  like is to buy "certified organic" or "100% organic" foods.

For more information, you can read the USDA booklet on organics.


  1. Great thorough article! I'm the daughter and office manager of a certified organic dairy and beef farmer. We have been certified for almost 16 years now. I agree that is it ALOT of work on the end of the small farmer. Many many hours of paperwork and hundreds of dollars to keep up with certification every year! We feel like it is worth it, but I can understand why some small farms do not. I hate that it has to be so difficult to market things the way they should be, but that is the world we live in I guess!

  2. Thanks for the comment! I'm glad to hear from someone who has actually gone through the organic certification process. It is a shame that things have to be difficult (especially for small, family run farms that may or may not have the resources to go through the process), but I agree that I suppose it is just the world we live in today.

    I checked out your link, and I sure do wish we were located closer! I would love to get some raw milk, as I've heard so much about it but haven't found a source for it currently. We're located in Colorado, to answer your question.

    Thanks again for your comment, and welcome to the blog! :)