Natural, Organic, Local, Grass-Fed – What’s the Difference?

Today we are all trying to make healthier food choices. However, it is not always an easy task. A lot of us have misconceptions about what food labels really mean. With so many different terms being used on food products these days – it’s hard to know what’s really healthy, and what isn’t.

Do these labels mean healthy food?

Natural, Organic, Local, Gluten-Free and Grass-Fed are all terms that alone sound healthy! But, what do these terms really mean?

Natural

In a survey of 1,000 people by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, nearly 60 percent of people said they look for the term “natural” on food labels when they shop.

About two-thirds of people surveyed said they believe the term “natural” means that a processed food has no artificial ingredients, pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The truth is, the FDA has not developed a definition of this term for food labels. The FDA won’t object to the claim “natural” as long as there is no added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. So reality, there are no regulations. “Natural” processed foods can contain ingredients that are processed into artificial ingredients or come from plants with toxic pesticides. Meat labeled “natural” can come from animals who received daily does of antibiotics or growth hormones.

Consumer reports wants the misleading term “natural” dropped from food labels all together because there are no restrictions on how animals were raised or what can go into foods labeled “natural.”

Organic

Let’s start by stating “organic” does not mean “local”. According to an article in Time, 17% of consumers spoken with during a survey across the U.S. and Canada incorrectly believed that foods labeled “organic” were also grown locally.

Unlike “natural,” The United States Department of Agriculture regulates and verifies the label “organic.” They have established an organic certification program requiring all organic foods to meet strict government standards.

Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic plant foods are produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge, or bioengineering or ionizing radiation. A government-approved inspector must certify the farm to ensure these standards are met. In addition to organic farming, there are USDA standards for organic handling and processing.

There are three levels of organic claims on food labels:

  • 100% Organic. Products that are completely organic or made of only organic ingredients qualify for this claim and a USDA Organic seal.
  • Organic. Products in which at least 95 percent of its ingredients are organic qualify for this claim and a USDA Organic seal.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients. These are food products in which at least 70 percent of ingredients are certified organic. The USDA organic seal cannot be used but “made with organic ingredients” may appear on its packaging.

Local

There is no legal definition of what makes a food “local.” However, the 2008 Farm Act states that any food labeled “local” must be produced in the locality or region in which the final product is marketed, so that the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product. Many states limit local to mean produced within the state. In the aforementioned TIME article, 23% of consumers falsely believe that “local” products are grown organically.

Gluten-Free

The FDA requires products labeled “gluten-free” to contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. This ensures that products are free of wheat, rye and barley before being labeled “gluten-free”. Foods inherently gluten-free like fruits and vegetables can also be labeled as gluten-free. Gluten-free does not mean healthy or organic. Many products labeled Gluten-free are processed and contain refined sugars and salts. For more about gluten-free labeling, check out our previous post: ‘Gluten-Free’ Labeling.

Grass-Fed

First of all ‘grass-fed’ does not mean ‘organic.’ Grass-Fed has a voluntary standard put out by the USDA in 2007, which governs grass-fed claims using the following criteria:

  • Animals must eat only grass and forage throughout their lives, except when consuming milk before weaning. They can’t eat or be fed grain or grain byproducts, but food from cereal crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state is OK.
  • They must have “continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” The growing season is defined as the time between average last and first frost in the animal’s locale. During winter months or drought conditions, they must continue to eat only grass and forage — no grain.
  • Animals may be given routine mineral and vitamin supplements. Producers have to document anything not considered routine.

Under the standard, producers must obtain a USDA evaluation prior to using the grass-fed label or marketing a product as grass-fed.

The Bottom Line

Food labels are confusing, and the lines are even more blurred when there isn’t a specific, regulated definition of what specific labeling terminology can mean. Knowing the difference between different food labels is important to a healthy and informed lifestyle.