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Kitchen Essentials: What's the difference between natural and organic?

Posted by Carl Jackson on





Natural versus organic food. They're the same, right? One would think so, but the truth is there are some key differences between the two. Understanding those differences will ensure you know what you're getting at your grocery store or farmer's market.

Organic agriculture, as defined by the USDA, is the application of a set of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. These include maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality; conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; and avoiding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering.

First and foremost, true organic producers are heavily regulated by the FDA and subject to third party inspections to ensure compliance. There is a plethora of requirements and guidelines that must be met before the coveted USDA Organic seal can be placed on a product, which is why you're generally going to pay more for organic foods. Definite no-nos include the use of sewage sludge or bio-solids, toxic synthetic pesticides or herbicides, chemical NPK fertilizers, preservatives, GMO's or artificial food coloring, to name a few. For livestock, no growth hormones or antibiotics are allowed, while humane living conditions for the animals are required. All of these things tend to decrease the overall yield while increasing the purity of the product. 

Foods marked Natural, on the other hand, may be anything but. As far as produce goes, neither the FDA nor the USDA has regulations for any fruits or vegetables regarding how they are to be grown, processed or colored. In fact, most labels on "natural" produce or related products tend to be intentionally vague, leading many consumers to believe what they are buying is essentially free of anything that wasn't originally in the food. For meat and poultry, the USDA does require that they be free of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives in order to be labeled natural, but this tells you nothing about how they were raised or if hormones and antibiotics were administered.  

The USDA has over 33,000 certified organic farms and businesses listed on its website.  You will be hard pressed to find a comprehensive list of "natural" farms or businesses on the internet due to the all-encompassing nature of that term. While products marked "natural" may indeed be entirely healthy and fit for human consumption, products with the organic label should give you a greater degree of confidence in the source and quality of your purchase while taking the guesswork out of your shopping experience. 

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