By Julie Cornelius, MS

Over the last few years, there has been an explosion of foods being labeled as organic, as well as natural. Let’s have a discussion of what these terms mean and what to look for when you are shopping for food.

First of all, what does ‘organic’ mean? Certified organic foods are ones that are grown and processed according to the USDA organic standards. Any foods that do not meet these standards are called conventionally grown foods. These standards include that foods must be grown without the use of chemical pesticides and foods must be grown from non-genetically modified seeds. Any organic processed foods must contain organic ingredients, be kept separate from conventional foods during processing, and only approved chemicals are used in the processing facility. The organic standards also impose a traceability factor where a paper trail is kept from the grower through the manufacturer. This helps to ensure that foods labeled as organic are truly grown and processed in a way that meets the standards.

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A lot of foods these days are being labeled as “natural” and this term is much more vague. The FDA has not set a formal definition of what natural means. Since there are no standards, this means that a food company can decide what they deem as natural. One thing that many people get confused about- natural does not mean organic! As discussed above, if a food is labeled as organic, it has to meet strict standards. There have been a number of lawsuits filed due to this large gray area. In the case of natural, as talked about in the post about Navigating the Grocery Store and Reading Food Labels, I recommend reading the ingredient list when shopping for food. Look for foods with just a few ingredients and make sure they are ingredients you can pronounce.

Let’s get back to talking about organic. There can be some benefits to eating organic foods. Here are a few reasons why to choose organic:

  1. Organic foods must be produced without the use of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Here is a great article that talks more about the risks for those. As a summary, these various things may be linked to an increased risk for cancer, possible antibiotic resistance and a number of other possible risks.
  2. Organic foods may contain more nutrients. Nutrients are things in food that have a function in our body. Some nutrients like carbohydrates and fat give us energy. Others such as vitamins and minerals help us get energy from our food and can help prevent certain diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Some recent studies suggest that organic foods may have more vitamins and minerals. Other studies show that overall, there is a not a difference. It may be true that certain foods such as tomatoes have more nutrients than their conventional counterparts.
  3. A lot would argue that organic foods taste better. This is entirely subjective, but some studies have shown that there is a preference for organic foods over conventional foods.
  4. Organic foods may help you maintain a healthy weight . Some studies show that chemicals in foods may make it easier to gain weight and more difficult to lose weight. Since obesity is a growing epidemic and raises the risk for things like hypertension, heart attack and diabetes, anything that can lose weight and maintain a healthy weight is a good thing.

When I talk to people about organic vs. conventional, the biggest issue people bring up is the cost difference. Organic foods cost more than conventional foods, period. It’s up to you to decide if this cost is within your budge and worth the extra money to buy organic foods. To help out, there are the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists. These lists show which conventional foods have the highest levels of pesticides and which have lower levels, which are safer to buy conventional.

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What’s the difference between natural and organic?
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