Organic vs Natural: Do You Know What These Terms Really Mean?


Organic vs natural – from the mail we’ve received, there’s lots of confusion about what these terms really mean. Too many people equate the two terms, thinking that when something is labeled as natural, it must be organic. That’s true of food, but also personal care products and cosmetics.


We want to set the record straight so you’re a more informed shopper. 


Natural is a term that gets tossed around a lot. Know why? It sounds good and it sells products. When you see the word “natural,” it may conjure up images of green meadows and plants blowing in the breeze. Combine that with a cleverly designed “green” label and you feel good about dropping it into your shopping cart. Instant dopamine release, but also a higher grocery bill. 


But, isn’t natural better? That’s what a lot of people think. In addition, many people equate natural with organic, believing the two are the same. They aren’t.


Natural Doesn’t Mean a Whole Lot


Here’s the reality. The term natural isn’t clearly defined or regulated by the FDA. 


In fact, there’s lots of leeway for what manufacturers can call natural. Would you believe high-fructose corn syrup is natural, according to the FDA as long as it doesn’t come into contact with synthetic ingredients when it’s made? 


To us, any product that has high-fructose corn syrup on the ingredient list goes back on the shelf no matter how “natural” it is. In addition, natural doesn’t mean a product wasn’t exposed to pesticides or antibiotics.


Genetically-engineered foods can be called natural as well – and why not? There’s no legal definition for natural.  


Organic vs Natural: Organic is Regulated, Natural is Not


Unlike natural, the term organic IS regulated but there are different degrees of organic. When you browse a label you may see an item was “made with organic ingredients.” Look at another product and you might see the USDA organic seal on an item. How do the two differ? If you see the USDA organic seal, the product was made with 100% organic ingredients. Even the processing aids used to make it must be certified organic.


Certified organic is strictly regulated by the USDA and growers are subject to inspections to make sure they’re following the protocol.  But, you’re probably wondering what it means to be organic, To be organic, a food must be grown or made without the use of synthetic pesticides or sewage sludge.


In fact, farmers must raise organic produce on soil that has been free of synthetic substances, including synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, for at least three years. Plus, none of the ingredients can be genetically engineered or irradiated. For meat and dairy, the animal must not have received antibiotics or growth hormones to fatten them up and their diet must consist of organic feed or forage.


The USDA dictates that farmers must raise organic livestock in a natural manner and give them access to pasture, shade, and the ability to exercise, organic isn’t always synonymous with human, due to a variety of loopholes.  


Here’s what to remember. Only foods and other products made with 100% organic ingredients can carry the USDA organic seal.

“Lesser” Degrees of Organic


Another situation you might encounter is an item labeled as organic, yet it doesn’t have the USDA organic seal. For a product to be called organic without an organic seal, it must contain at least 95% certified organic ingredients. Plus, the other non-organic ingredients must come from a list approved by the USDA. 


You may also see products labeled “made with organic ingredients.” This means at least 70% of the ingredients are certified organic. However, the other ingredients do not have to be organically grown or produced.


Here’s an example of a product made with organic ingredients



Anything with less than 70% organic ingredients cannot make an organic claim on the label.


Hopefully, this gives you a clearer idea what organic means when you see it on a label and how it differs from natural, a term that’s unregulated. Obviously, choosing products with the USDA organic seal offers the highest level of purity from a pesticide and GMO standpoint – and natural offers the least.


Beware of the Health Halo


Do you feel good when you pay more for something organic because you believe you’ve chosen something healthy? You’re not alone. Researchers at Cornell University coined the “health halo” effect. It refers to the fact that people tend to assume organic foods have other virtues – they’re healthier, lower in calories higher in fiber, more nutritious, taste better etc. 


It’s a common phenomenon and often happens at a subconscious level. You pick up a pint of sugary ice cream and assume it MUST be healthier because it’s made with organic ingredients. Many people think foods that have a positive attribute, like being organic, automatically makes an item a better choice from a health perspective. 


It’s easy to get sucked into the health halo – but resist the urge. Read the ingredient list when you buy something packaged. Bring along your reading glasses so you can read the fine print. Organic doesn’t mean a food isn’t high in sugar or unhealthy oils. Repeat this to yourself when you’re shopping in an organic grocery store. “Organic doesn’t always mean healthy.”


For example, we have a “healthy” food market that advertises that their offerings are free of a long list of additives and ingredients, but when you cruise down the aisle, you’d be shocked at how high in sugar some of the products are. Also, keep in mind that organic sugar is still sugar and still has the same negative impact on your blood sugar level and metabolic health. 

What about “natural” flavors? As we pointed out in a previous article, natural flavors can come from anything from insects to beaver’s butts. When it comes to all natural vs organic, don’t be swayed by what’s on the front of the package. Be a detective and read the ingredient list along with the nutritional information.


Organic vs. Natural: The Take-Home Message


We encourage you to avoid processed foods as much as possible even if they are organic. Organic ingredients won’t make up for things like too many cheap additives, sugar and the wrong kinds of fat. Just as people at one time thought they could eat more of something because it was labeled low-fat – it’s happening now with organic products.


We recently saw a woman drop four bags of chips in her cart at our healthy grocery store. She told the check-out person she’s glad she can eat chips again now that they’re organic and made with healthy ingredients. Don’t fall into that trap. That’s what happens when you only read the marketing information on the front, the part that’s designed to sell you a product. Just the facts, ma’am, and they’re on the back where the ingredients and nutritional data are. 


Where we do recommend buying organic, if your budget allows it, is for fresh produce on the “dirty dozen” list. This is a list of the most heavily sprayed produce items. Here they are:


  • Apples
  • Strawberries
  • Grapes
  • Celery
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Nectarines
  • Cucumbers
  • Potatoes
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Red peppers


You can probably get by with buying other items non-organic if you wash them thoroughly. If you eat meat and dairy, buy organic meat and dairy so you avoid exposure to antibiotics and growth hormones. If you eat meat, buy humanely raised meat for the sake of the animals – or cut back on meat and enjoy more plant-based options. 


Lastly, be wary of anything labeled as natural or all-natural. Things may change in the future. A number of large companies, including Pepsi, Ben and Jerry’s and Frito Lay, have been sued for calling their products “natural” when they contained synthetic ingredients or GMOs.


Hopefully, the FDA will revisit this issue so all-natural has some meaning. As companies become frightened by the potential for lawsuits, expect to see more descriptions like “simple” and “wholesome” in place of the term natural.


Who’s the best judge of whether a product is healthy and right for you? You are – so do some detective work before heading to the grocery store checkout line and don’t assume you’re eating healthy because you’re buying natural or organic. These terms say nothing about the nutritional content of a food. 




Food “HFCS is Natural Says FDA in a Letter”
University of California Berkeley Wellness. “The Organic Health Halo”
Organic Authority. “No More ‘Natural Food’: Brands Trick Out Labels to Avoid
USDA. “Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means”

Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.