Natural vs. Organic vs. Sustainable Foods

Reading food labels in the grocer’s green aisle can be downright puzzling at times. Food manufacturers compound the issue by throwing all kinds of words at us. Several of the more important labels that you should be familiar with are “natural”, “organic”, and “sustainable”. These words are not synonymous, and actually denote important differences in the way our food products are raised, grown, and treated. A closer look will reveal that a few words can actually make a big difference.

What Does “Natural” Mean?

Out of the three terms, “natural” might be the least meaningful in terms of health or environmental impact. Generally speaking, natural food is simply food that contains no artificial ingredients (such as artificial sweeteners, flavors, etc.). The label “natural” doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about ow the food was grown. Meat from animals treated with artificial hormones may still be labeled as “natural”. Natural foods are sometimes grown on farms that use synthetic pesticides a practice that is distinctly unnatural for the environment and for human longevity. “Natural” is a good start, but stopping at just “natural” isn’t enough.

“Natural” food means:

  • No added synthetic ingredients, such as artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, etc.

What Does “Organic” Mean?

Compared to the disappointment of the “natural” label, we see much more meaning in the word “organic.” A food item must meet a detailed set of farming and production requirements set by the USDA in order to be legally considered organic. Organic foods must be free of toxic persistent pesticides and herbicides, foods derived from genetically modified organisms (also known as GMOs), antibiotics, growth hormones, and (thankfully) sludge and irradiation. This is why we see fewer organic foods than natural foods: All organic foods are natural, but few natural foods are genuinely organic.

“Organic” food means:

  • No added synthetic ingredients
  • Grown without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.
  • No genetically modified organisms
  • Animals must be raised without hormones or antibiotics
  • No irradiation

Be aware that foods labeled “made with Organic” only have to be 70% organic.

What Does “Sustainable” Mean?

The third term, “sustainable,” actually has less to do with ingredients per se, and more to do with how food sources and the environment are treated. While the U.S. government did define the term “sustainable” in 1990, it is a lengthy definition that may leave some room for interpretation. In essence, sustainable food production must “enhance environmental quality,” use nonrenewable resources efficiently, integrate “natural biological cycles and controls,” “sustain the economic viability of farm operations,” and “enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.” In many ways, sustainable is more a philosophy or a way of life than a strict, enforceable definition.

“Sustainable” food often means:

  • Grown using methods that benefit the soil, such as composting, crop rotation, mulching, etc.
  • Grown using methods that benefit surrounding land and wildlife
  • Often sold locally and/or direct to consumer to reduce fuel usage and ensure food is fresher
  • Uses sustainable strategies to reduce the need for irrigation and conserve water
  • Animals are raised in a healthy, natural environment
  • Farmers and other parties are paid and treated fairly

Why You Want All 3: Natural, Organic, And Sustainable

The best food of all, however, is all three: natural, organic, and sustainable:

  • Natural means that no artificial ingredients have been added to your food.
  • Organic is a strict legal definition that forbids chemical pesticides, GMOs, etc.
  • Sustainable is a philosophy that means the food was grown while trying to benefit the environment and people.

As you can see, defining these terms can help us to make informed decisions and feel more assured about our food choices. As consumers, our job is to stay informed, read labels carefully, and make the effort to support only those products that fit with our values and lifestyle. As for natural, organic, and sustainable food items, we must keep a close eye on the exact phrasings that manufacturers put on their packaging. After all, making good food choices begins with checking the word choices.

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