The difference between Organic and Natural is as vast as the difference between a cat and a car. All of us want to eat as healthy as possible, but the advertising industry has been deliberately and un-ethically using the word “Natural” to describe its processed foods for some time, below Plantations International tries to shed some light on the topic for you.

What is Organic?

Organic is a legally defined system of agriculture which seeks to use ecological methods of production. Its goal is to learn from and mimic natural processes in order to produce the food we eat while also allowing our farmers to be better stewards of the land. Organic farmers forego the use of synthetic petro-chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and weed killers in favor of more environmentally benign inputs and techniques. Organic agriculture combines both old and new ideas and practices to produce healthy, tasty, vitamin-rich crops. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.

Organic is also a labeling term that, in the US, denotes products grown and processed in accordance with the USDA’s National Organic Program rules.

By law, produce which was not grown on certified organic farms can NOT be labeled as Organic in the US. Organic food handlers, processors and retailers are certified and inspected in accordance with standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people

What is Natural?

Under USDA regulations, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. In practice, “natural” is a marketing claim that manufacturers can – and do – use on a wide variety of products, with no standards or oversight. There are simply no regulations for the labeling of “natural” food products if they do not contain meat or eggs. Most consumers have a very different idea of what “natural” means than what is actually in products marketed as “natural.

What is Healthy?

While the FDA has set boundaries for foods that can be labeled as “healthy” (for instance, the item must have less than 600mg sodium per serving), what is healthy for one person is not necessarily healthy for another. A person on a low sodium diet certainly shouldn’t be eating foods with 500mg of sodium per serving, even though that may be perfectly fine for a person who isn’t watching their salt intake. While we can agree that some things are generally healthy, like fresh fruits and veggies, there are many other things that may be labeled as healthy that aren’t so clear cut. Just like with “no sugar added”, “fat free”, or “made with real fruit” consumers need to look closer at foods labeled “healthy” to determine if they are really a healthy choice for their family.

Why do these distinctions matter?

Savvy consumers want to know what they are buying and eating! Keeping up with the ever-increasing number of labels, nutrient claims, and competing scientific studies about what is and is not good for us is a daunting task. But is there anything more important than feeding your family wholesome, nourishing food? That’s one reason why the organic movement continues to grow, and why we’ve fought so hard to develop and enforce legal standards about what is and isn’t organic. We all want to have peace of mind about what is in our food, how it is grown, and hopefully to leave our planet and our farmland in a little better shape at the end of the day.

What do organic growers do, anyway?

Many consumers, if asked this question, will say “They don’t use synthetic pesticides.” And while that is true, it’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Organic agriculture is a way of working with natural processes to solve some of the problems that all farmers face, from weed control to pest control, from increasing soil fertility to managing plant diseases, from too much rain to not enough.

Rather than spraying to eliminate all insects, Organic growers strive to achieve a balance between beneficial insects such as bees, ladybugs, and wasps and those that are destructive to crops. Organic farming allows for these beneficial insect populations to co-exist and aid in control, keeping the negative impacts of the pests to tolerable levels. Providing habitat for the beneficial creatures helps limit the population of the “bad guys” while maintaining healthy bio-diversity.

Fertility of the soil is a key component of organic farming theory and practice: feed the soil and healthy crops will follow. Compost production is foremost in this strategy to build biologically active soil communities. These in turn support healthy root structures that allow plants to develop to their fullest potential. Other natural enhancements, including ground rock powders (such as dolomite limestone), seaweed, bone meal and cover crops are also used to add nutrients and trace minerals.

Factors such as environmental suitability and the natural disease resistance of a particular crop or variety are evaluated by the farmer before a crop is planted. Organic growers take pride in growing the varieties most suitable for their regional micro-climate, soil type, and growing season length (not to mention flavor and personal preference). This eliminates many potential problems before they get a chance to start.

Farmers are intimately connected to their land, and over years develop a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw on to develop new (and sometimes to rediscover old) solutions to the many challenges which confront farmers everywhere. Combined with a good deal of ingenuity and hard work, some of the most productive farms in the world are flourishing using 100% organic techniques.

What are the benefits of organic agriculture?

There are many benefits, from reducing the environmental costs of chemical agriculture to supporting family farms and strengthening farming communities. There is an ever-growing body of evidence that synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers are damaging to the health of farmworkers, farming communities, and consumers.

Organic farming eliminates the use of toxic, persistent chemicals which have wide-reaching impacts on our environment. These byproducts of chemically- intensive agriculture are a huge threat to food security and, ultimately, to the continued existence of the millions of plants and animals that share the planet with us.

Organic farming also helps reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause global climate change. The EPA estimates that 14% of global GHG emissions come from agricultural operations annually.

The EPA estimates that once on soils, synthetic fertilizers generate over 304 million tons of GHG emissions each year. Organic farming operations average 40% less GHG emissions than conventional farms, a tremendous reduction. There is more work to be done to achieve a truly sustainable food system, but organic growers are on the right track.

Organic farming supports biodiversity, improves soil, protects fresh water, nourishing our earth as well as producing great tasting, nutrient rich food to nourish our people. It’s a win-win.

What are the benefits for consumers of organic produce?

Organic produce is sought-out by consumers wishing to reduce and minimize their exposure to the residues from agricultural chemical use. And rightfully so! Studies have found chemical residues in many of the foods we currently consume, the long-term health effects of which are highly suspect. While organic is not a “residue-free” claim, it has been demonstrated that by eating organically produced fruits and vegetables, consumers can reduce their exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.

Then there is the flavor – although it hasn’t been scientifically proven, many consumers say organics just taste better! Indeed, many organic farmers focus their efforts on growing varieties that are unique and flavorful, instead of durable and uniform. Many splendidly flavored heirloom varieties that conventional agriculture deemed “un-marketable” have been preserved by organic growers and their appreciative customers.

By purchasing organic food, you can:

  • Support organic farmers – help keep small family farms viable.
  • Help move agriculture to more widely adopt sustainable practices.
  • Encourage the conservation of land, water and other resources.
  • Protect the environment, wildlife and water quality.
  • Minimize your exposure to harmful chemical residues.
  • Avoid consuming Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), which are prohibited from Organic products.
  • Help preserve unique and flavorful varieties of fruits and vegetables.
  • Provide your family with great tasting, healthy food.

How do we know that what is sold as organic is really organic, especially if it’s imported?

By law, produce which was not grown on certified organic farms can NOT be labeled as Organic in the US. Growers, manufacturers, processors and even retailers who are certified organic must be audited and inspected every year by an accredited, third-party certification agency to ensure that they are following all the National Organic Program regulations.

Imported organic produce is subject to certification standards every bit as stringent as produce grown in the United States. The USDA reviews the certifiers of imported organic produce in order to ensure that they meet the requirements of the US National Organic Program, and overseas organic farms are certified and inspected in exactly the same way that organic farms in the US are.

Beyond certifying the farms themselves, certifying agencies both in the US and abroad also scrutinize the packing, storage, and transportation of all organic and transition products. Boxes or other packaging must be clearly marked as containing organic products, and all shipments are carefully documented and tracked to insure against contamination in transit from the farm to the consumer. In the rare instance that accidental contamination does occur, the product is immediately stripped of its organic status and must be sold as conventional or destroyed.

The US organic regulatory system has multiple layers of oversight, and while occasionally an unscrupulous person tries to cheat the system the penalties are serious and offenders are quickly caught and stopped. All of us involved in the organic trade have a stake in ensuring that consumer trust in organics is warranted, and not just because it’s our business – it’s also the food we eat!

How can consumers know what they are buying?

Look for the USDA Organic seal, or simply for the word Organic – it’s that simple! There are four categories of labeling for certified organic food products: 100% Organic, Organic, Made with Organic Ingredients, and specific organic ingredients listed on the ingredient panel. Fresh produce is the easiest, as it will be labeled as either 100% Organic or just Organic, because that’s a reflection of how it was grown. An apple is either an Organic Apple or not, there’s no such thing as a 70% Organic Apple! If it is labeled as Organic, it means it was grown on a certified organic farm, using only approved organic techniques, as well as harvested, packed, shipped, labeled, tracked and documented as an organic apple the whole way to the store.

Manufactured products must be at least 95% Organic ingredients to be labeled Organic, and 70% Organic ingredients to be labeled as Made With Organic Ingredients. Those percentage categories are for manufactured products, such as Apple Pies – they might be made with organic apples, but if the crust and the sugar aren’t organic, they can’t be labeled as simply Organic, they have to specify the percentage. The individual ingredients that are organic will be marked on the ingredient list, and the name of the certification agency who inspects and audits the manufacturer will also be listed on the package.

And now the big question: Why does Organic cost more?

There are many reasons. One is that organic farming is more labor intensive, for instance using hand weeding instead of spraying herbicides. Likewise, Organic materials, such as soil amendments and biologically-friendly pest controls are more expensive than their synthetic chemical counterparts. Organic farms are usually smaller than conventional ones, and economies of scale are a real factor in pricing. Prices have gotten much closer between Organic and Conventional produce in the past decades, and a big factor in reducing the price differential has been the scaling-up of organic operations as demand for organic products increased. Organic produce items aren’t treated with post-harvest chemicals that prevent mold, decay, and dehydration so organic produce often has a shorter shelf life and costs increase due to spoilage. It’s also true that there are costs associated with certification, inspections, testing, and tracking organic produce that aren’t shared by conventionally grown items.

That said, it is certainly possible to eat organic on a budget! Buying fresh produce is nearly always more cost effective than buying processed products, and pantry staples like rice and flour are available in bulk for considerably less than their packaged counterparts. Shopping farmer’s markets and looking for seasonal specials in the produce department is also helpful. Buy fresh produce items frequently and in small amounts, so you don’t end up throwing out fresh items that went bad before you could get to them. Splurge on a cookbook or check one out from your local library, and learn to cook from scratch using fresh, whole ingredients. With a little ingenuity, creativity, and resourcefulness, anybody can afford to go organic!