What Does 'Natural' Really Mean? Tips On Figuring Out Food Labels
Natural: Probably the hardest label to explain (and understand!), the definition of “natural” depends on the type of food you are consuming. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees labeling for meat, poultry and egg production, and defines natural as minimally processed without containing artificial ingredients. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees labeling for all other foods but has yet to define the term “natural.” That said, the FDA does not object to the use of a natural label “if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”
Note: Although packaging and labels for meat, poultry and egg products require a review by the USDA before use, this is not true for products overseen by the FDA.
USDA Organic (usda.gov): Used on farmed crops, livestock and wild crops, the USDA Organic label assures that products were farmed with an emphasis on renewable resources and conservation of soil and water without most conventional pesticides, fertilizers with synthetic ingredients, bioengineering or cold pasteurization. The Organic label means 95% or more of the food and its ingredients are organic.1
Note: Labels like “all natural” may be listed on a product without it meeting USDA Organic standards. Therefore, not all “natural” products are organic, but all organic products are considered natural.
100% Organic: Unlike the USDA Organic label, which allows for 5% of the product to be non-organic, 100% Organic products have to show an ingredient label in which every component of the product has been certified as organic. The agency providing certification must be listed as well.
Made with Organic: These products must be made from at least 70% certified organic ingredients. The remaining ingredients (up to 30%) must be produced following the same methods required by certified organic ingredients and/or present on the USDA’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (a.k.a. the National List). For example, genetically engineered ingredients would not be allowed. The agency providing certification must also be listed.
Grass-Fed, Free-Range and Cage-Free (usda.gov): Labels like these refer to how an animal was fed or housed. These labels may accompany the USDA Organic label on a product. However, not all grass-fed, free-range or cage-free animal products are considered organic.
Certified Naturally Grown (naturallygrown.org): Not a USDA-monitored label, this indicates that a farm follows the same organic standards as a USDA certified organic farm. Verification for the program comes from inspection by other farmers in the community. 2 Certified Naturally Grown is often used by small farms, so you may see the logo on local produce, honey or animal products.
Non-GMO Project Verified (nongmoproject.org): Rather than verifying a product is free of GMOs (genetically modified organisms or genetically engineered ingredients), this label is used by manufacturers to tell shoppers they have taken the steps to avoid the presence of genetically engineered ingredients in their product. To receive the seal, each product is verified to have followed steps to avoid genetically engineered ingredients by the non-profit, third-party organization Non-GMO Project. 3
Note: Currently, the only crops allowed to undergo genetic engineering in the United States are alfalfa, rapeseed (utilized for canola oil), corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, zucchini and yellow summer squash.
Fair Trade Certified (fairtradeusa.org): This label is commonly seen on coffee, chocolate, fruits and vegetables in the United States, but may be found on imported products from apparel to beauty and personal products. It indicates that products come from a developing country where producers are compensated at a fair price and products are grown and harvested under humane standards. 4
rBGH/rBST Free (cancer.org): Often seen on milk products as “From cows not treated with rBGH/rBST” or “From cows not treated with artificial growth hormones.” Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), is a synthetic hormone given to cows to increase milk production. Although there is controversy surrounding its use and effect on humans, whether milk from cows given rBGH or rBST affects humans any differently than that of milk from cows not treated with the hormone remains to be seen. 5
Local: There is no regulated definition for the label “local.” Rather, its meaning depends on a company’s understanding of the term and its use. For example, one supermarket may highlight a product as “local” if the company is regionally-based, such as SoCo Creamery in Great Barrington. Another retailer may define “local” as products grown regionally, such as butternut squash from Plainville Farm in Hadley.
As you can see, there is a lot of information to be found on the packaging of natural and organic products. To learn more about organic foods, be sure to check out the USDA’s handout on “Labeling Organic Products” found at ams.usda.gov. And, of course, if you ever have a question about a label you see while shopping, contact our dietitian team at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, you’re in the know. Get set, ready, go green!
Carrie Taylor is the lead registered dietitian nutritionist for the Living Well Eating Smart program at Big Y Foods. Have a nutrition question? E-mail email@example.com or write Living Well at 2145 Roosevelt Ave., P.O. Box 7840, Springfield 01102.
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1 United States Department of Agriculture. National Organic Program. http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/NOPOrganicLabeling. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015.
2 Certified Naturally Grown. Frequently Asked Questions.
http://www.naturallygrown.org/about-cng/frequently-asked-questions. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015.
3 The Non-GMO Project. The Non-GMO Project Verified Seal: Helping You Make Informed Shopping Decisions. http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/understanding-our-seal. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015.
4 Fair Trade USA. Frequently Asked Questions. http://fairtradeusa.org/what-is-fair-trade/faq. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015.
5 American Cancer Society. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/recombinant-bovine-growth-hormone. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015.