As critically thinking consumers are beginning to realize, food labels are not immune to the elusive wordplay and downright deception used by major manufacturers and advertisers. The use of words like “natural” and “organic” on custom product labels, for example, is so widespread that many consumers can’t distinguish between the two. Worse still, supposed regulators like the USDA and the FDA use ambiguous language when setting labeling standards.
The following insights into the natural and organic labeling standards, or lack thereof, imposed on food manufacturers will reveal the truth about these purportedly healthy products.
Natural Labeling Standards
The USDA defines natural foods on one of their food labeling fact sheets as minimally processed, additive-free products. Nowhere on the website, or on any other agency website, is there a list of ingredients that cannot be used. Similarly, according to an executive report released by the Food Marketing Institute,
“Most foods labeled natural are not subject to government controls beyond the regulations and health codes that apply to all foods.”
This means that farmers and food handlers can use the same pesticides, fumigants, and petroleum-based neurotoxins on natural foods that they use on products without the label. Realistically, the current definition of a natural food product was made amorphous so that companies could circumvent the rules without penalty. Now that natural products are available in over 70 percent of grocery stores, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Division, consumers are being misled on a global scale.
Organic Labeling Standards
According to the National Agricultural Library, organic foods are produced in adherence with the National Organic Program, which dictates proper farming, processing, and preservation methods. The National Organic Program describes three major tiers of organic labeling, under which different standards must be observed. Products that are “100 percent organic,” for example, must be fully comprised of organic ingredients. The “made with organic ingredients” label must describe a product that contains more than 70 percent organic ingredients, and products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients are allowed to cite the ingredients on the information panel. So what exactly is an organic food product, and how is it produced?
The National Organic Program acknowledges a food as organic when it is produced per NOP specifications regarding pesticide use, wild crop harvesting methods, handling methods, treatment of livestock, and other standards. An organic egg, for example, must be produced by a cage-free hen that was fed a strictly organic diet. Any added ingredients must be on the “allowed” portion of the government’s Allowed and Prohibited Substances list. Organic farms are subject to inspection by state programs to maintain their accreditation and keep the organic label. While organic foods are more regulated than natural foods, they are still eight times as likely to be recalled for contamination issues, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The best policy for health-conscious consumers trying to decipher the diplomatic dribble of companies and government agencies is to research thoroughly. Research the pesticides used in foods, and which foods require the least amount. Pay attention to the shelf life, smells, residues, and textures of food products. Finally, if you want to change the equation for all of your fellow consumers, apply some much-needed pressure on government agencies and food companies.