If you are sometimes confused when navigating the different marketing terms for organic and natural products you are not alone. Everything from produce to beauty supplies to clothing carries labels that appeal to the health conscious or eco-friendly shopper. Whether or not these labels accurately define the products depends on regulations.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees regulations on product labeling. With the increase in interest in natural and organic products, the government has taken steps to regulate use of terms such as natural and organic (see References 2). As of 2008, 69 percent of adults in the United States bought some organic products and 82 percent of U.S. food retailers offered organic products for sale (see References 1, page 3).
Organic certification ensures that the product met the USDA standard under the National Organic Program, which began in 2002 (see References 2). The organic label means that the product contains at least 95 percent organically produced and processed ingredients. You might also see a label with a percentage indicating how much of the product qualifies as organic. Any product containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot use the organic label. These products can only list individual ingredients as organic. Organic products must also indicate the certification agency and indicate each organic ingredient on the label. (See References 3, page 1)
The natural label has become ubiquitous. The government does not regulate the use of the word natural on products, except for poultry and other meats. Natural meat and poultry cannot contain artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or sweeteners, and processing kept to a minimum. A label of natural on meat products must explain how the product classifies as natural. A label of natural does not indicate anything about the raising, feeding or care of the animals. On other products, the natural label ideally means minimal processing and no artificial additives. The lack of regulation, however, makes it difficult for consumers to determine if this is the case. (See References 1, page 1)
With any product, reading the fine print will help you make educated choices. A product labeled organic isn’t necessarily better than one labeled natural. For example, because of regulations, some local products might not qualify for the organic label due to the fees and size of the operation, but may use organic practices. In such cases, ask questions of the farmer or manufacturer. Carefully read the labels of products identified as “natural” to search for any artificial ingredients or excessive processing.