Natural vs Organic - What's the Difference?

It’s so great that there is a trend right now towards eating clean, however keeping up with all of the vocab around it can be dizzying. I want to help demystify it so as to make you a more educated consumer, because you got the power honey! I’m still trying to figure out how to insert a downloadable sheet into this post, so for now I’ve created a highlight reel under ‘shopping guides’ on my Instagram which you can screen shot and keep in a safe place to whip out the next time your at the grocery store and wondering ‘wtf is the difference between free range and pasture raised?’. It’s confusing and it’s meant to be - everyone wants to tap into the cleaner eating market, so companies are using various words and descriptions that sound great but may not be exactly what you were wanting.

Let’s get into some of the most common labels we’ll see out there:

  • Antibiotic Free: This one is real straight forward and you’ll most commonly see this listed as ‘raised without antibiotics’ on animal products meaning that the animal was never administered antibiotics.

  • Cage Free: In terms of poultry this simply means that the bird did not spend its life in a cage, however it doesn’t tell us if the bird was free to roam on a pasture or if it was still confined to a feeding lot type situation.

  • Free Range: Compounding off of ‘cage free’, free range is another term for poultry meaning that the bird was allowed access to the outdoors where it could do as chickens do - but again, it doesn’t tell us how much of it’s day was spent free ranging and doesn’t always mean it wasn’t treated with antibiotics (look for those labels on there in addition to the free range!).

  • Grain Fed: In terms of meat products, this means the animal was fed a diet consisting of grains. You should make sure to check the label to ensure it specifies that the diet was 100% vegetarian meaning there were no animal by products included in its diet.

  • Grass Fed: Simply put, meat given the USDA’s label for grass fed means the animal ate a diet consisting of natural grasses rather than a soy or corn derived diet that is common on conventional feedlots. However, while the USDA labels this difference it does not necessarily enforce or regulate the practice by producers. The term ‘Pasture Raised’ refers to where and how the animal was able to consume its diet - on a pasture free to roam and eat a traditional diet (grasses). *An interesting thing I learned while researching all this is that typically cattle are not 100% grass fed. During the winter time it’s common for organic farmers to bring their cattle indoors and incorporate a grain blend into the castles diet along with dried grasses - of course in order to maintain an organic label (if they have it), the grain blend fed to the cows must also be comprised of organic components.

  • Hormone Free: Interesting fact - the USDA prohibits the use of the label ‘hormone free’, so instead producers must use the labels ‘no added hormones’ or something along those lines to indicate if hormones were administered during the animal’s life. Another interesting fact - the USDA prohibits the use of added hormones in poultry and pork, so poultry and pork products can use the label ‘No Added Hormones’.

  • Natural: Currently this label is only defined by the USDA for meat and poultry and it means that the item is minimally processed and does not contain preservatives, artificial colors, artificial flavors, or other artificial ingredients. However, this does not mean it is free of hormones, antibiotics, was humanely or sustainably raised, or organic. (This definition also covers ‘All Natural’ - that ‘all’ at the start doesn’t change anything!)

  • Organic: The USDA probably puts the most effort into the certification and inspection process for everything ‘organic’ compared to all other food labels (which is a good thing). All items that receive the organic seal from the USDA must be comprised of 95% - 100% organic ingredients. They must be produced without the use of antibiotics, growth hormones (for animal products), most conventional pesticides, petroleum based fertilizers, sewage sludge based fertilizers (look that shit up), bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Producers must actually submit an application to be deemed ‘organic’, and the process requires that they submit records of the three years prior to their application showing that they abstained from the use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge fertilizer, and pesticides (this practice must also continue if they want to maintain the ‘organic’ title') in addition to what they will be producing, and an on site visit. Once their application is accepted that accreditation is valid for 5 years, upon which the producer can choose whether or not to renew.

Yes the USDA has labels in place to help clarify to consumers how the product was grown/raised so we can make decisions that align with how we want to eat, but we gotta remember that just because something is labeled ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ it doesn’t mean you can eat it with reckless abandon. Just because those cheddar bunnies are organic doesn’t necessarily give you the green light to go off and eat half a box of them or a sleeve of ‘all natural’ cookies - these items still have calories, sugar, etc. and still impact how your body operates. I’m of the mindset that food is meant to be enjoyed, but moderation and mindfulness are key.

Hope this helps you feel a little more confident navigating the grocery aisles, I only hit some of the more common labels you’ll see out there but would love to hear if there are any others y’all want to know about!

Hannah ForresterComment