Most Americans are concerned with the safety of the food they buy, according to a 2017 survey by Michigan State University. In particular, 85% of Americans are concerned about pesticides in their foods, according to data from a 2015 Consumer Reports survey.
Many shoppers see buying food labeled "natural" or "organic" as a way to make sure their food is safer. But going by those labels can mean you have to spend more: Certified organic eggs cost 122% more than the average retail price for eggs, for example, while organic milk is 87% pricier, according to Nielsen data.
The terms "natural" and "organic" mean different things, and they don't always justify paying a premium. Here's which label experts say you should understand when making your grocery list.
More than half, 53%, of Americans would most likely be motivated to buy a food if it is labeled as "natural," according to a 2019 Label Insight survey. But experts say food labeled "natural" means nothing unless the food in question is meat or poultry, in which case "natural" means "a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed."
Consumers make a lot of assumptions about what natural foods are and are not, says Lena Brook, the director of food campaigns, healthy people, and thriving communities program at the National Resources Defense Council. "They are assuming foods that are labeled as natural are minimally processed or don't include hormones," she says, but that's not actually a USDA requirement.
In 2015, the FDA requested comments from consumers about how to use "natural" in food labeling, theoretically to help it form its own official definition. However, the agency has released no such definition. "The agency has reviewed the comments and is determining the next steps, which are contingent upon our resources and other priorities," says Nathan Arnold, press officer at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
So, for now, most products do not have to meet specific requirements to call themselves "natural." Organic foods, however, are a different story.
"The organic label is very heavily regulated" by the USDA, Brook says. "It has the force of law behind it."
Rigorous criteria for earning the "organic" seal vary based on the food. Generally, products with the seal cannot contain artificial colors or preservatives, pesticides, growth hormones, fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There is a hefty fine of up to $17,952 for fraudulently labeling a product as organic, too, to keep the seal trustworthy.
"Consumers right now are looking for transparency, and clean foods that are produced without harmful practices or harmful ingredients and organic is a surefire way to meet a lot of these needs," Brook says.
The short answer: organic. Because the guidelines for a food to be "natural" are nonexistent, any product could technically label itself as natural, regardless of what it contains, and perhaps raise the price.
"Putting 'natural' on a label is a way of circumventing all that hard work [of earning the organic seal] but appeal to the consumer," Brook says.
However, Sarah Ohlhorst, senior director of advocacy and science policy at the American Society for Nutrition, says that a "natural" label is not always baseless. "While there's no formal definition, there is a general sense that natural still means no preservatives and no additives," she says. That's something you could confirm by reading the ingredient list.
Either way, if you're trying to be more conscious about what you eat, an organic label is the easiest way to spot a food that contains fewer additives. And depending on your priorities, it might be worth the higher price. Organic milk tends to last longer in the fridge, for example.
"Organic is always natural, but the same isn't always true in the reverse," Brook says.
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