Organic vs. Natural

(excerpt, originally published 8/5/2008)

Throughout the ages, man has been faced with difficult choices: Chocolate or vanilla? Yankees or Mets? Soup or salad? However, these all pale against today’s biggest dilemma: Organic or natural?

The battle begins

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the National Organic Program (NOP), published the final rule on national organic standards on Dec. 27, 2000. USDA’s Organic Standards asserts that organic and natural are not the same thing. “Natural” suggests that products have been minimally processed and are free of synthetic ingredients. Products labeled as “organic” have been certified as meeting USDA organic standards.

The website for the Organic Trade Association (OTA), Greenfield, MA, provides its perspective on organics: “Organic food production is based on a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers. Organic foods are minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives or irradiation to maintain the integrity of the food.”

Although NOP has the final word on federal organic definitions, OTA defines the practice as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

OTA goes on to assert that “natural” refers to the end product, one that is minimally processed. According to the association: “OTA’s main concern is that any regulations governing the ‘natural’ label make clear that a product that qualifies for this label cannot be presumed to be equivalent to an organic product. The ‘natural’ label does not provide any information about how an animal was raised or how the product was produced.” OTA also states that organic products might also be considered natural, although that is not always the case, as noted in a 2007 commentary submitted by Tom Hutchenson, regulatory and policy manager, OTA: “Some confusion may arise from the requirement that, to the extent possible, only natural or ‘non-synthetic’ substances can be used to produce an organic product. Exceptions to this requirement are strictly limited to synthetic substances that appear on the National List, following extensive review and public comment. Organic products may or may not be minimally processed and may include ingredients such as antioxidants, nutrient fortification, emulsifiers, thickeners and flavoring, so long as any such additives or processing aids that are not organically produced are included on the National List and comply with other National Organic Program requirements (i.e., they were produced without GMOs, irradiation or sewage sludge, and were not extracted with volatile synthetic solvents).”

Holly Givens, public affairs advisor, OTA, adds: “All food and beverage products sold in the United States as organic must meet or exceed federal regulations for those products, no matter where in the world the ingredients or product originated. In general, products labeled as organic would be considered natural, but products labeled only as natural do not meet organic standards.”

Naturally speaking

In the quest for a definition of “natural,” the official statement from FDA explains that, “the term ‘natural’ has not been defined in FDA’s law (the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act) or in FDA’s regulations.” The agency issued a Guidance for Industry called “A Food Labeling Guide,” in April 2008, that makes no reference to the word natural other than how it is used in colors. On July 3, 2008, FDA issued a letter to the Corn Refiners Association, Washington, D.C., regarding the use of the term natural that said, in part, “our longstanding policy on the use of the term ‘natural’ is that ‘natural’ means that nothing artificial (including artificial flavors) or synthetic (including all color regardless of the source) has been included in or has been added to a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food. Additionally, we stated that we do not restrict the use of the term ‘natural’ except on products that contain added color, synthetic substances and flavors as provided in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), section 101.22.”

The brouhaha regarding the lack of a clear definition for the term “natural” was brought to a head in a 2008 court case, in which Stacy Holk filed a federal suit against the Snapple brand, alleging that the use of the term “natural” on drink labels was deceitful, because the drinks contained high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a “highly processed sugar substitute” created through “enzymatically catalyzed chemical reactions in factories.” U.S. federal judge Mary Cooper rejected the claim, explaining that the discrepancy stems from the lack of a clear definition of “natural” from FDA.

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