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Some 'Natural' Food Just Isn't Natural


By Britt Lundgren

If you reach for foods labeled “natural,” don’t be fooled. You might be filling your cart with the very foods you’re trying to avoid. Would you believe foods labeled “natural” can contain high-fructose corn syrup and be made with artificial hormones, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and genetically modified organisms?

While the word “organic” is defined by federal law, there are no legal standards for the labeling of most natural foods. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees food labels, has never defined the term “natural,” and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has defined it only for meat.

By the USDA’s definition, natural meat contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” When it comes to foods other than meat, however, the definition of “natural” isn’t regulated by law.

Some food companies use the word “natural” in good faith — using only ingredients most people would consider natural.

Other food companies, however, will print “natural” on their labels while using all sorts of unnatural substances to produce their food — such as synthetic hormones, synthetic herbicides, synthetic pesticides, and genetically modified organisms.

What’s more, natural food production includes no standards for environmental impact or animal welfare. Natural dairy products can come from cows that stand on cement pads all their lives and in such crowded and unsanitary conditions that they need ongoing, preventive antibiotic treatments in order to stay healthy and productive.

Differences at a Glance: Organic Natural
Toxic persistent pesticides and herbicides Not allowed Allowed
GMOs Not allowed Allowed
Antibiotics Not allowed Allowed
Growth hormones Not allowed Allowed
Sludge and irradiation Not allowed Allowed
Animal welfare requirements Yes No
Lower levels of environmental pollution Yes Not necessarily
Audit trail from farm to table Yes No
Certification required, including inspections Yes No
Cows required to be on pasture for pasture season Yes No
Legal restrictions on allowable materials Yes No

Organic — the real natural

Organic vs NaturalFood bearing the "USDA Organic" seal must meet consistent, uniform standards defined by federal law. When you buy organic food, you get what most probably think of when they think “natural."

Organic crops are raised without toxic persistent pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Organic regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering or ionizing radiation.

Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors, and they aren’t given any antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones.

So, if you want truly natural food, don’t look for the word “natural.” Reach for the “USDA Organic” seal instead.


Britt Lundgren

Britt Lundgren is the director of organic and sustainable agriculture at Stonyfield Farm. She holds a Master of Science in agriculture, food, and environment from Tufts University. Prior to joining Stonyfield, Lundgren spent several years as an agricultural policy specialist for the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. She has worked on organic farms in Maine, Massachusetts, and Colorado.

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