Next time you wander up and down the aisles of a grocery store, pay attention to the labels. We guarantee you’ll see boxes, cans, and bottles proudly proclaiming their all-natural ingredients. Or their status as certified organic. There’s a growing movement in the Western world towards eating natural, organic, local, seasonal, and sustainable foods. Unfortunately, those categories can be contradictory.
Plus, the majority of us have a murky understanding of what they actually mean. If you hear the words natural and organic and think of hand-picked, farm-fresh produce, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, food companies are as likely to slap these labels on frozen pizza and sodas as apples and whole grains.
So what’s in a name, and how did these processed “health” foods earn the right to call themselves natural and organic?

Natural: a slippery definition

The word natural is directly related to the word nature. By its strictest, dictionary definition, it means existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind. The word evokes a mental image of healthy, nutritious whole foods. Still, these days, we can find the label “all natural” or “100% natural” on everything— from peanut butter and cereal to sodas and candies. Have you ever seen a soda in nature? How about a jar of peanut butter that wasn’t made by humankind?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating and supervising food production. And they’ve done little to curb the overuse of the word natural on food products. In fact, according to the American Society for Nutrition, “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances,” (1) an ambiguous policy that leaves interpretation of “natural” largely up to the food industry.”
Because there are little to no regulations when it comes to slapping natural on the label, it has become an abused marketing tool. Natural does not necessarily mean antibiotic- or hormone-free. It also doesn’t rule out processed sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup.
“At present, the word ‘natural’ in food marketing is meaningless, and that’s the way food companies want it,” says Gary Ruskin. Ruskin is the executive director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit organization that promotes transparency within the food industry. “It’s a swindle and a scam. It’s a term crafty marketers use to make you buy something.”

How the wellness community co-opted “natural” to mean “healthy”

Although the term is loosely defined and poorly regulated, 60% of shoppers still look for the word “natural” on food labels when they shop. They also said they believe natural means a processed food contains no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or GMOs. No federal regulations support these beliefs.
So why do we still trust “natural”? Essentially, brands hijacked the term to tap into the health and wellness markets. In the past 50 years, there’s been an incredible shift in the public’s perception of food. Considering over 40% of people in the Western world eat a specialized diet, it’s no surprise that food companies wanted to tap into the clean eating movement.
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff also offers his opinion in an article for U.S. News. “It appeals to our belief that if it came from the earth, it must be good for us. I think that belief, also known as the natural fallacy, is not only incredibly ill-informed, it’s also incredibly arrogant.” Dr. Freedhoff goes on to point out that tobacco, arsenic, and poisonous mushrooms are also natural, but nobody believes they’re healthy.

Pitting nature against science

Even more troubling is the clear divide in public perception between natural and scientific. For centuries, humans have used science to enhance their understanding of nature, and improve our ability to use it. Cooking, after all, was one of the first natural sciences. It allowed us to transform inedible stalks of wheat into loaves of bread, setting the stage for modern society. But in recent years, we’ve seen an increasing distrust towards scientific advancement, especially when it comes to food production.
By setting the two terms in opposition to each other, many wellness movements open the door to arguments against other scientific advancements, including GMOs and vaccines. This is where we see the stance that science wants us to be unhealthy, or that we’re being manipulated by scientific researchers. The only solution? Rejection of scientific advancements, and return to high-priced natural foods and trending diet supplements.
Until we recognize how interrelated science and health are, and lean on the natural fallacy, we’ll continue to be flummoxed.

Organic: it’s all about the growing practice

If the definition of natural is slippery and overused, organic food is at least well-regulated by the USDA. The USDA’s organic certification program requires that organic foods adhere to strict government standards. These standards include regulations around how organic foods are grown, handled, and processed. Organic also refers to the products that can and cannot be used during growing and processing.
Products that are labeled as organic have to be USDA certified. Plus, once they’re certified, these products can bear the official USDA Organic seal.
The USDA makes an exception for producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods. These producers have to follow the guidelines for organic food production, but they don’t have to go through the certification process. They can label their products as organic, but they can’t use the official USDA Organic seal.

Organic foods can still be junk…

Coconut chia power cookies. Vanilla matcha popcorn. Organic crème caramel ice cream. Even Kraft mac and cheese has stamped a seal of approval on many of their ubiquitous blue boxes. Despite proudly bearing a USDA Organic seal, none of these foods are good for you. But our increasingly health-obsessed society has worked hard to sneak their favorite junk foods into the wellness arena.
The problem? “From a macronutrient perspective, organic junk foods are often identical to their conventional counterparts,” Katy Severson writes for HuffPost. “They tend to be equally high in sugar and low in protein and fiber, which makes a food less satiating and more likely to cause health problems long term.”

…And bad for the planet

A recent study shows that organic crops of peas and wheat need more land to produce the same yield as a conventional farm. This increased land use can lead to deforestation and increase the overall environmental impact. One of the researchers, Stefan Wirsenius, writes, “Our study shows that organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50 percent bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas.” For some crops, the difference is even starker. Wirsenius explains that “With organic Swedish winter wheat, the difference is closer to 70 percent.”
Though this study was limited to Sweden, the implications are global. As Wirsenius explains, “The world’s food production is governed by international trade, so how we farm in Sweden influences deforestation in the tropics. If we use more land for the same amount of food, we contribute indirectly to bigger deforestation elsewhere in the world.”

The hidden cost of organic food

Another, often unspoken, downside to organic farming is the increased labor requirements. Organic growing has a big impact on farmworkers. Organic food often still uses organically-certified pesticides, which can negatively impact the people working the fields. Plus, by choosing not to use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, organic growing requires up to 35% more manually-intensive labor. One study published by the American Society for Horticultural Science found that per acre of tomatoes, organic systems take 34 percent more labor than conventional methods.

Sustainable: reconnecting people and food

Sustainable is a word that gets thrown around a lot, in many different contexts. When it comes to agriculture, it’s a production system that’s good for the environment, people, and communities. And for years, sustainability has been the intersection of scientific discovery, agricultural innovation, and environmental responsibility. While we’re not slapping “sustainable” labels on food packages (yet), sustainability gets to the heart of the food labeling debate. It’s about reducing food waste, lowering agriculture’s carbon footprint, and preserving farmland productivity for future generations.

Minimally-processed, whole foods

Because sustainability focuses on the entire food system, it doesn’t lend itself to the organics market’s “healthy” junk food craze. Instead, it promotes a return to minimally-processed whole foods. This helps to reduce production costs and combat agricultural waste.

Shorter supply chains

Sustainable agriculture supports local communities and local economies. As such, there’s a focus on shorter supply chains and greater traceability. This reduces emissions caused by transporting food and lowers the total cost of getting food from our fields to store shelves.

Growing smarter

By leveraging science and technology, we’re growing better food for more people with less labor and fewer resources. That not only lets us create a safer, healthier work environment; it also elevates the type of work our teams do. Instead of labor-intensive manual harvesting, our educated workers are field engineers. They operate technically-advanced equipment to optimize our outputs.

Education is key

With so much confusion and ambiguity in the labeling world, it’s essential to increase awareness around what the terms natural, organic, and sustainable mean. Armed with this knowledge, you can make more informed decisions about what you buy, who you’re supporting, and what ends up on your plate. If you’ve got questions, the team here at Northerly is here to help you reconnect with your family farmer.