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article imageGreen Thumbs Up: The difference between natural and organic

By Karen Graham     Jan 10, 2016 in Environment
Labels on food products, like GMO, natural, and organic, can be confusing, especially when there may not be a definite set of criteria manufacturers have to follow. While the FDA and USDA do have regulations governing some labeling, it isn't that simple.
Like many people today, we assume that when we purchase a food product with a label saying it is USDA certified as being "organic," or 'natural," then certain things must are true.
The problem with labeling food products as organic or natural is becoming increasingly confusing. Gizmodo is reporting that manufacturers are having a blast labeling everything from 7-Up to Cheerios with the "natural" label. This is the reason why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in November opted to ask the public to weigh in on the terms used on food labels.
A product labeled as being a  natural  food.
A product labeled as being a "natural" food.
Labeling a product as natural
If we are buying a product labeled as being "natural," according to the USDA, it must not contain any artificial ingredients or added coloring, and can only be "minimally processed." So what does "minimally processed" mean? According to the USDA, this is a food product that was processed in a way that does not fundamentally alter the product.
Additionally, according to the USDA, as reported in Live Science, the product must contain a statement on the label explaining the manufacturer's definition of the term, such as "no added coloring," "no artificial ingredients" or "minimally processed."
"However, since that definition is arguably vague and does not address food processing or manufacturing methods, it raises the question of whether this term is appropriate at all on a food, or whether it leaves too much room for interpretation and misinterpretation," said Dr. Leah Holbrook, coordinator of graduate nutrition programs at Stony Brook University Hospital and Medical Center.
A product with an organic label.
A product with an organic label.
Looking at an organic label
Again, according to the USDA's definition, an organic product is defined as having been grown under approved methods. Specifically, the approved methods incorporate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.
Dr. Holbrook says, "By general definition, organic foods have not been treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and animals raised organically are not given hormones or drugs to promote more rapid growth. Also, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not used on any organic farms,
Interestingly, an organic label on a food product requires USDA certification. Organic is actually the most heavily regulated food system in the U.S. Quality Assurance International (QAI) is an USDA-accredited organic product certifying agency.
Their inspectors have to verify organic integrity from the land where the product is grown, to post-harvesting and processing plants, all the way to the retail stores. Additionally, organic producers and processors are subject to announced and unannounced certification inspections by third-party inspectors.
OK, so knowing what the labels are supposed to mean should answer many questions for consumers over what the label is telling us. But herein lies the problem that keeps popping up. In the first place, the word "natural" doesn't really mean a lot, especially if the FDA is asking for public comment on how it should be defined.
Getting a certified organic label may be more difficult for a grower or manufacturer, and the consumer is going to pay much more for that label because of the governmental red tape involved. But even this label is raising some concerns, according to Mother Nature News.
For example, quite often, people drawn to organic food products think the animals they get their meat from are pasture-raised, and that isn't always the case. Another misconception about organic food products is that they are eco-friendly. This is also not always the case. Next week, we will look further into food labeling and in particular, how seductive this labeling can be to unwary consumers.
Green Thumbs Up is a weekly feature that looks into ways we can live more sustainable and environmentally-friendly lives. If you missed last week's Green Thumbs Up, please go HERE.
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