Organic, Natural and Everything Else: Decoding the Food Labels

Research on food trends in the United States indicates that Americans have a growing appetite for healthier foods.  According to the Institute of Food Technologists, most consumers believe that limiting processed food is one of the most important components of healthier eating, and natural ingredients rank third on the list of most looked-for items on the ingredient label, after type of fat/oil and sweeteners.

Stroll through any grocery store and you’ll see an ever-increasing number of natural and organic foods, as well as hormone free meats and milks, free-range chicken, and cage-free eggs.  You’ve probably noticed that these products cost more, but are they really better for you – and, are they worth extra the money?  It depends…

Lab testing on many of these products suggests that in terms of their nutritional value, both conventional and these “healthier foods” are very similar.  Both provide comparable amounts of most nutrients.  The difference is in how they are produced, their impact on the environment, and whether they contain unwanted additives or ingredients.  Surprisingly, not all claims made on food labels are regulated, so it’s important to understand the labeling terms in order to become an informed consumer.  Here’s an overview of the most common “healthy sounding” label terms and what you should look for the next time you’re at the grocery store:

cheetos-puffs-simply-natural-white-cheddarNatural –Although there is no formal definition for the use of “natural” on food labels, it’s generally agreed that foods containing this label are free from artificial ingredients and preservatives, and they are minimally processed.  The  USDA regulates “natural” labeling only on meat and poultry products, and food manufacturers who post the “natural” claim on their products do not have to be certified or inspected.

Should you buy it?   Remember, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s healthy.  Corn, oil, and salt may all be natural ingredients, but that bag of chips- not so good for the waistline.  Use common sense when looking at the “natural” label.  If it sounds too good to be true, trust your instinct.


Free Range and Cage Free– these labels are regulated by USDA, but while most of us picture animals roaming and grazing on acres of green pastures when we see this claim, that’s usually not the case.  Legally, free-range chickens must spend “some time” (even just a few minutes each month) outdoors, and cage-free chickens live un-caged inside barns or warehouses, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. The USDA does not define free-range in terms of beef, pork, or other non-poultry animals, so if you see the label on other products, be aware that it has no standard meaning.

Should you buy it?  Seeing this label alone doesn’t mean much, and probably doesn’t warrant any extra cost.  Better to buy organic (see below).

growth-hormone-free-milkHormone Free/rBST Free –This label means that the farmer has chosen not to inject cows with any artificial growth hormones. The label is also used on beef and chicken products, where the animal was raised without growth hormones or steroids. However, the USDA prohibits giving hormones to chickens, so the label doesn’t mean much there — all chicken you buy will be hormone-free whether it’s labeled or not.  One more thing to consider – farmers who use this label are not required to be audited by any third party agency.

Should you buy it? Hormone treated milk and meat has been suspected of contributing to early puberty in children, and increased risk of some cancers, but so far, research is inconclusive, and  ongoing.  Personally, I buy hormone free, and the good news is – thanks to consumer demand, many large store brands of milk are now hormone free.   Look for the hormone-free or rBGH-free/rBST-free wording on the label to make sure. 


Organic – The organic label is the cream of the crop in terms of the “healthy sounding” food labels.  Organic refers to how farmers grow, raise, and process food – without the use of synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones, chemical food additives, or irradiation. Organic farmers also choose to not use seeds which have been genetically modified (more on this in an upcoming post).  When raising animals, organic farmers use organic feed, and allow animals to roam.  The USDA organic seal indicates that the product contains at least 95 percent organic content.  In addition, all organic farmers, ranchers, distributers, processors and traders are strictly regulated and regularly audited by the USDA.

While both organically and conventional produced foods are fairly comparable in their nutrient content, organic foods come out ahead because they contain significantly less pesticide residues.  Another major plus is that organic farming practices are designed to benefit the environment, and most of these farms practice sustainable agriculture.  The downside is that organic foods are expensive to grow and produce, and therefore cost more.  Also, organic fruits and vegetables aren’t treated with waxes or preservatives, and may spoil faster.

Should you buy it? If you can afford it, and it’s accessible, purchasing organic food is a great step toward protecting the environment. If cost is an issue or you want to be selective about which produce is better to buy organic, check out this list of The Dirty Dozen– the produce that consistently has the most pesticide residue.   Whether you choose to buy organic or not, it’s important to remember that the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables far outweigh the risk of pesticide exposure.  Eating conventionally grown produce is definitely better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.

Eat well!

This post has been edited from the original, which ran at where I also blog.  The opinions are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates.

One Comment

  1. Thanks a lot for sharing the blog. I really learned a lot at the same time enjoyed reading the blog. There are indeed lots of those logos on products but unfortunately, some are also fake and don’t really contain healthy properties as indicated. People must still be very careful at what they buy.

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