I’ve heard many of you talk about eating healthier as a consequence of exercise. The more you exercise, the more fruits and vegetables you add in. You eat less processed foods, and eat things that are lighter, and digest more easily.

I’m sure you’ve seen the catch term on these products though. “All Natural” this and “100% Organic” that. But what the heck does it really mean? What is “All Natural?” Isn’t that kind of redundant? Isn’t all food from nature? The term “Organic” also can be pretty frustrating too. People like the sound of it. It seems healthier. When a situation is “organic” it often means it is awesome, unscripted and genuine. But what does it mean for food?

Here are some definitions according to the Food and Drug Administration:

What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. Link

Wait what? So the FDA doesn’t regulate or have an official definition of what can be labeled “natural?” What about “Organic?”

Does FDA have a definition for the term “organic” on food labels?

No. The term “organic” is not defined by law or regulations FDA enforces. Link

Well… crap? What the heck have I been buying all this time thinking it was healthier. To dig a little deeper, I luckily found a helpful section on the FDA website labeled “Confusing Claims”

Confusing Claims

The terms “natural,” “healthy,” and “organic” often cause confusion. “Consumers seem to think that ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ imply ‘healthy,'” says Schneeman. “But these terms have different meanings from a regulatory point of view.”

According to FDA policy, “natural” means the product does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients. “Healthy,” which is defined by regulation, means the product must meet certain criteria that limit the amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and require specific minimum amounts of vitamins, minerals, or other beneficial nutrients.

Food labeled “organic” must meet the standards set by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Organic food differs from conventionally produced food in the way it is grown or produced. But USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.

For example, says Schneeman, “A premium ice cream could be ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ and still be high in fat or saturated fat, so would not meet the criteria for ‘healthy.'” Link

At least the FDA agrees that these terms are confusing . . . and that there is a lot of ambiguity to them. The term “Natural” looks to be more clearly defined at least, though it does trouble me that there is no official set definition. To learn more about what is considered “organic” by the USDA, I headed to their website. I found this document describing at least in part what it could mean.

– Produced without excluded methods (e.g., genetic engineering), ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge.
– Produced per the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List).
– Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.

I guess not having radiation, or sewage sludge in my food is good? Really though, after looking around last night and this morning . . . I do question why I pay extra for things labeled organic. I guess I have this lingering hope that because it cost more, it must be healthier, or at least more difficult to produce . . . naturally?

Who knows! Food for thought for the weekend. I think I’ll be stopping at my local farmers market and pick up some fresh locally grown produce, because I’m sure that has to better for me. =)