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December 07, 2016

Infrequently Asked Questions: What's the difference between organic and natural?

Though there are clearly differences between the natural and organic products you pick up at the grocery store, it's not exactly clear as day what those are. If you're not a dietician or living your life with a full-time devotion to knowing food sources, you're probably chucking one or the other in the cart with little mind to what you're consuming.

Eager for some clarity, we reached out to Dr. Daniel Monti, Director of Integrative Medicine at Jefferson Health for answers.

What's the foundational difference between organic and natural?

'Natural' can mean a lot of different things, and it's not really a well-regulated word, so to me, with organic there is a little more oversight. Natural generally means it occurs in nature. It's a carrot, versus a chemical preserve that's made up in a laboratory. However, organic speaks to -- and actually, [natural] generally refers to what it is but it doesn't say much about how it was grown. For example, it might be talking about a carrot which is a naturally occurring plant, and it is natural, but whether or not it was grown with pesticides is a different nomenclature altogether. And that's when you get to organic.

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So, organic has to do with how it was grown. That carrot may still be natural, but if it's organic and certified by the USDA as organic, which means growing standards and it was grown without pesticides and certain types of fertilizers. Products that claim to be, when you look at a product and it says 'all-natural,' that can mean a lot of things. It generally means the products are from nature and don't have additional preservatives or additives in them. It's not a strictly enforced term, but that's what it's implying. I always tell people what's on the front of a label is fine, that's mostly marketing, but you have to look at the side panel to see if "all natural" really means "all natural." If it says "organic" and it has the USDA stamp of organic, that's saying it has to have 95 percent organic ingredients, except for water and salt. Those remaining 5 percent of ingredients typically consist of items that aren't typical to source organically, and they're not supposed to be GMO products as well. Something can also have, from the USDA, a seal that reads, "100 percent organic," which means every bit of that – every ingredient in that product is organic and there are no GMO products to worry about.

So a big difference is there's a regulatory standard for organic?

There is a standard for organic. You want to see the seal that it is organic. The USDA will certify products as being organic. 

Is the term "organic" something that's mostly popped up in the past few years, or is it something the USDA has been looking at for years and it's only now more popular?

It's something that is more recent. They started looking at this in the '90s but I don't know what year that started.

In terms of actual health differences, what are the key distinctions between the two?

I think people have increasing concerns about pesticides they're exposed to. For example, given growing data, they're not good for us, it's not good to have too many pesticides in us. It can be neurotoxic and cause other health problems in high doses, and so the organic movement really was largely spurred in the agricultural industry by people who had concerns about pesticide exposure. And when we talk about livestock, organic generally refers to things that meet the same criteria. 

Another nomenclature you may notice out there a lot is "grass-fed." When they say – or, "free range" with chicken. You can buy eggs that have labels reading, "From Free-Range Chickens with Organic Diets," so these are chickens that get to walk around and the food they eat is organic. Why is this an issue? The food they eat and that is in their flesh makes its way to us. That's why some people are thoughtful about this. Do I think it's healthier to eat organic produce? I mean, when you have the option of organic versus non-organic, of course, you'd want to have fewer foreign chemicals in your body. The problem is the accessibility of organic products, and also the price, which makes the options limited for some people – a lot of people, actually.

It all boils down to price, really. It's unlikely those prices would ever go down based on the work put in.

Yeah. And it's more difficult to farm organically. To farm without pesticides means your crop yield might be lower; there's just more involved with it. Higher costs. There's always going to be a price differential between organic and non-organic foods.

It's a conundrum!

Yeah. Of course, it wasn't a conundrum in your great-grandparents' days. If they had farms [around], that was where they got produce from because there wasn't all this stuff. But with mass agriculture and mass farming, these chemicals became available. Really after World War II is when we first saw a spike in all of this stuff – hormones in dairy cows to increasing use of pesticidal agents, and every decade after that – from the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and beyond.

Let's say you're out shopping and you can't afford all organic, but can throw a few dollars at some organic items. What are some good options?

What I love about the question is that's a practical way to look at it. There are some plants that seem to absorb pesticides more than others. And in the fruit category, non-organic grapes and strawberries tend to have a higher pesticide content because they absorb these chemicals more readily through the membrane of the fruit – berries in general. They have higher pesticide content, whereas, if you're concerned about pesticides, wash and peel your apple. (I'm not saying any of them get in, but fewer.) You've got a harder skin on an apple than you do on a strawberry. A strawberry is very porous. The stuff just comes right in. 

Anything to add?

I'm thinking of a ton of terms people ask me about...

"Made with Organic Ingredients" means 70 percent or more of ingredients are organic.

I get asked a lot about grass-fed foods, and that has to do with cattle. The USDA is stopping oversight of that nomenclature because it's problematic for them to monitor, but it basically means the cattle can walk around on grass as opposed to being all penned up. They eat grains. If you've ever driven out west, or through parts of California, where you can see miles of cows penned into a dirt area, they don't eat grass – they eat this corn byproduct. So, what you see is a difference in fat content and quality and the amount of omega-6 fatty acids – all the things that have to do with the healthfulness of the animal. 

The other nomenclature out there is when you're talking about fish – farm-raised versus wild. "Wild" cod means it's out there in the ocean or lake. "Farm-raised" means it's sort of a fish version of being penned up and fed a non-normal diet. This can affect things like salmon, for example. Farm-raised salmon often have to have colorant injected because they don't have that pink-orange hue, so manufacturers use a keratin-based coloring on the salmon to make it look natural.

Another term out there used is "farm-to-table," which basically means you know from what farm your vegetables are being sourced. If it's a farm-to-table restaurant, they'll say they get their brussel sprouts from such-and-such farm, and it goes right from their farm, to their restaurant, and they put it on the table for you.