Both organic and natural foods are healthier and more environmentally friendly than ultra-processed food with man-made additives and preservatives. People often confuse the two, which makes sense, because organic food is produced in a way that ensures harmony with nature. However, ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ don’t always mean the same thing. Organic and natural food are also regulated differently in different countries. Here, we will explore the differences between organic and natural food, so that you can make more informed choices when shopping for food that will benefit your health and wellness.
To be called organic, a food must comply with comprehensive regulations. These regulations vary by country and focus on everything, from farming practices to pesticide use to soil quality. The term ‘natural’, on the other hand, does not have a strictly regulated definition in the way that ‘organic’ does. This means that it can be used a lot more liberally by food producers, which makes it hard to know how well their products are farmed or produced.
Organic farming practices have a strong focus on sustainability and helping the environment. Farmers of organic food use techniques like composting and crop rotation to make sure their food is produced with as few chemicals as possible, and the use of synthetic pesticides and GMOs is forbidden. Natural food can either be farmed in ways similar to organic food, or in completely different and less environmentally friendly ways.
Organic products are free from synthetic additives and artificial flavours and colours by definition, choosing natural ingredients over man-made ones. There are no strict rules on the use of these additives and artificial chemicals in natural food, which means that their use can vary drastically.
Organic food labels usually have a certification stamp from an official regulatory body – in the US, for example, the label ‘USDA Organic’ tells you that a food has been thoroughly checked and found to be organic. The European Union organic label, a leaf outlined in stars, shows the same message for products produced in the EU. Natural products often have the words ‘all-natural’ or ‘100% natural’ on their packaging, but these terms are not standardized in the same way that ‘organic’ is, and it is possible that a food might not be as natural as the label claims.
Organic farming practices are often very environmentally friendly. Farmers care deeply about sustainable agriculture, natural pest control methods rather than pesticides, and promoting soil health and biodiversity in their farms. While many natural food products are farmed in similar ways, some producers may not make the environment as much of a priority.
The production of organic food can be very labour-intensive. Organic farmers also often have lower yields than other farmers, because they don’t use GMOs or other growth-enhancing chemicals, preferring to use their knowledge and their green thumbs. As a result, organic food is often more expensive than conventionally produced food.
Consumers often perceive organic foods as the healthier and more eco-conscious choice. They are often right in thinking this – organic foods undergo less processing than other foods, which means that it retains its nutrient content. Natural foods are also seen as healthier than processed foods, but the lack of regulation of the term ‘natural’ means that consumers’ experiences with natural food can vary.
Organic farming strictly forbids the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides. Farmers instead opt for natural pest and weed control alternatives, such as spraying neem oil or introducing insects that eat crop pests. There are no such regulations surrounding natural food, and while some farmers might choose natural methods of pest control, others may opt for synthetic pesticides.
Organic farming practices forbid using GMOs in food production. This means that animals and plants cannot be given artificial growth hormones or have their genes edited to encourage growth. By contrast, the use of GMOs in natural foods is not regulated, so some producers may choose to include GMOs in their food. There are specific non-GMO certifications that you can look for on labels to avoid these.
Organic animal farming is unique in its focus on animal welfare. Standards of animal welfare state that animals must have access to the outdoors (free range) and must not have growth hormones or routine antibiotics in their feed. As such, conditions in organic livestock farms are very humane. Many conventional animal farmers still keep their animals free-range but may not adhere to the same welfare standards as organic animal farmers.
Organic foods are generally considered natural because of their focus on sustainable and environmentally friendly food production. The reverse is not always true though; while many natural foods can be organic, others might not be.
Both organic and natural foods can be used as part of a healthy diet. That said, organic foods are free from synthetic chemicals and GMOs, which makes them that little bit healthier than natural food.
The word ‘natural’ is not a regulated term in the same way that ‘organic’ is, which means that it is used a lot more liberally. This can give the impression that producers will just label their food as natural without proving their claim, but in many cases, the label is correctly applied.
Organic and natural food might not seem too different from one another at a glance, but there are subtle differences. These are mostly to do with careful regulation of production methods and farming practices – organic farming keeps more nutrients in food by using fewer processing methods than natural food, which means that organic food can have more health benefits. Knowing the difference between organic and natural food, and how to choose the right food for you, is vitally important in your wellness journey.
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