By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
One of the most rewarding things about being a doctor is seeing patients really “buy into” getting healthy, and commit to lifestyle changes that will have a lasting impact on wellness.
So, it’s felt good to watch more and more people embrace the move toward organic food. To me, that’s proof we’re finally getting the message about not eating a steady diet of pesticides, preservatives, and other impossible-to-pronounce ingredients!
But along with the increase in the volume and variety of healthy foods on the market, there’s been a small explosion of new food labels—organic, 100% organic, made with organic, natural, and more.
They all sound good, but are they really?
I’m willing to bet that you might be surprised at some of the answers. Let’s take a closer look…
I’ll start with organic because it’s probably the most recognized of the labels, and generally I think people have a decent understanding of what it means.
Food that’s labeled “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic” meets stringent requirements in terms of how it’s produced and processed. These include:
- No processing with industrial solvents or irradiation
- No synthetic pesticides
- No chemical fertilizers
- No GMOs
- No hormones or preventive antibiotics
- Livestock must have year-round grazing access and be fed a non-GMO diet
Organic whole foods are among the healthiest foods you can buy because they nourish our cells without dousing them in energy-lowering chemicals. To the extent you can, I recommend always buying organic—especially produce, which is known for carrying pesticide residues.
Keep in mind, though, that the organic restrictions around pesticides and fertilizers don’t mean that farmers don’t use them at all. They do. The products just have to be derived from natural sources and approved by the USDA.
So the takeaway here is that even if your produce is organic, you still need to give it a proper cleaning before you eat it!
Now let’s talk about organic processed foods. The rule with these is that a food has to contain at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients. There’s a little more leeway around that last 5 percent, although they have to come from a USDA-approved list of synthetic and non-organic ingredients that can be used in organic foods.
For more details about organic food production, check out this link to the USDA National Organic Program.
“100% Organic” Foods
This is an extension of the organic label, and it means exactly what it says. All of the ingredients in it are organic. These foods may also display the USDA Organic seal, though not all foods that have the seal are 100 percent organic.
“Made With Organic Ingredients”
These foods are still a cut above any conventionally produced food, but only 70 percent of their ingredients must be certified organic.
That doesn’t mean the other 30 percent can come from just anywhere, though. Those ingredients still have to come from USDA’s allowable list (the same one that applies to organic foods). Fortunately, nothing on that list can contain GMOs, so you can be confident that you’ll be steering clear of those, along with artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives.
Here’s where food labeling really jumps the rails, in my opinion, and where my blood pressure goes up.
“Natural” foods sound healthy and give the impression that they’re a lot like organic, but they’re not. In fact, they’re not even close.
I’ll get to why in just a second. But first I want to point out why this is such a big deal.
A few years ago, Consumer Reports did a study that found more than half of grocery shoppers—62 percent, to be exact—specifically look for foods labeled natural. Most of those folks said they did so because they believed that a natural label meant the food didn’t have GMOs, pesticides, hormones, or artificial ingredients in it.
That’s a lot of people and some pretty high expectations—and if you’re one of the 62 percent, you’re going to want to hear what I’m about to say.
The word natural on food labels doesn’t really mean anything at all. There’s no official definition of it and no legal standards or regulations that can be enforced. The only thing you’re going to find about it is some loose language from the FDA that says foods are natural when there’s nothing artificial or synthetic added to them, like colors or flavors.
Without additional detail that spells out what those terms include, food producers have argued that a lot of highly processed and unhealthy things qualify as natural. Plus, there’s no accounting for GMOs, pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics in production—so there’s no guarantee that you won’t end up with one or all of those things in your grocery cart.
The bottom line is really a buyer beware situation. Some food producers will keep their products on the clean side, but others may not. You need to read labels closely and not blindly trust that natural = healthy.
What About Reports That Even Organic Isn’t Real?
That’s a good question. As the demand for organic groceries has grown—along with the number of stores that sell them—a handful of organic producers have been caught claiming conventional foods as organic.
I still believe the vast majority of organic producers are following the rules. But if you stay tuned here, I’ll be the first to let you know if that changes. I’ve had a lot of exposure to the industry over the years, especially while I owned a health food store/restaurant. I decided to open it when I realized there was nowhere near my office where I could grab a healthy lunch. The experience was a baptism by fire—but I learned a lot!
As far as organic and natural foods go, though, only organic is truly healthy. And to the extent you can afford it, you should always buy organic. They’re your best bet for long-term wellness.
- Consumer Reports National Research Center. Natural food labels survey. 2015.
- Consumer Reports. “Natural” on food labels is misleading. Aug 2014.
- Rock A. Peeling back the “natural” food label. Consumer Reports. 29 Jan 2016.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. National list. Accessed November 17, 2017.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Natural” on food labeling. 11 Nov 2017.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. Organic labeling standards. Accessed November 17, 2017.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. Organic regulations. Accessed November 17, 2017.
- Wadyka S. What food labels mean—and don’t: Which terms are federally regulated and which are just marketing eye-catchers. Consumer Reports. 23 May 2017.
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Page last updated Dec. 10, 2023.