Grocery shopping is a great way to save money and start eating healthier. But sometimes, finding high-quality, nutritious food can be difficult. With packaged foods stating they’re “natural,” “made with organic ingredients” or “100% organic,” it can be hard to tell what you’re paying for. Is it really worth it to buy “natural” foods? Should you splurge and buy organic everything? And what do these labels mean for supplements? Read on to learn about these labels and what they really mean.
What Does “Natural” Mean in Food?
“Natural” food labels are tricky. The term “natural” is not defined by law or FDA regulation. According to the FDA’s informal policy, “natural” means that no artificial or synthetic additives (including color additives, regardless of their source) are in the food.1 However, “natural” food can come into contact with pesticides, and it doesn’t address food processing or manufacturing methods. Given that there is no formal regulatory definition of the term, the use of the word “natural” is largely unregulated. When buying food labeled “natural,” make sure you trust that the brand upholds high standards and carefully read the list of ingredients.
What Does “Organic” Mean?
“Organic” produce means the fruit or vegetable hasn’t been in contact with prohibited substances included on the National Organic Program’s (NOP’s) list. In general, synthetic substances are prohibited, unless specifically allowed by the NOP. For meat products, the animal must be raised in a way that accommodates their natural behaviors (for example, being able to graze in pasture as opposed to being fed in a barn stall). Animals must also be fed organic crops and cannot receive antibiotics or hormones.2 While buying organic is great for your health and the environment, it can be expensive. Be sure to read our quick guide on when to buy organic produce so you know when it’s worth it to splurge.
READ MORE: Seasonal Produce: When Should I Buy Organic?
What Does “Made With Organic” Mean?
“Made with organic ingredients” is often seen on food labels, but it doesn’t mean the product is completely organic. Instead, food with this label must have between 70 - 94% organic ingredients. In addition, no ingredients can be produced with GMOs.3 These products should also specify which ingredients are organic. Look for specific labels like “made with organic strawberries” rather than a more general statement like “made with organic ingredients.” While “made with organic” foods can’t use the USDA organic seal, look for the name of the USDA-accredited certifying agent on the label, which ensures the product meets USDA regulations for this type of product.
READ MORE: Marketing Buzzwords vs. Meaningful Labels
The Difference Between Natural and Organic Supplements
While the FDA regulates dietary supplements and ingredients, there are some differences in the standards that are applied compared to “conventional” foods. However, similar to conventional food claims, manufacturers are responsible for ensuring a supplement’s label claims are accurate and truthful before the product is available for purchase.4 With this in mind, it’s important to find a trustworthy brand that uses high-quality ingredients. Before making a supplement purchase, ask your doctor for recommendations or research the quality of ingredients (popular supplements, like Ubiquinol, have a quality seal to help you understand the ingredients used). Once you find a trustworthy brand, be sure to look for various options - you may be able to find supplements that meet your dietary preferences, such as gluten-free, dairy-free, or organic varieties.