You Need to Know: What Does Natural, Local and Organic Mean?

Today's consumers are increasingly concerned with where their food comes from, and demand for "organic," "local" and "natural" foods is on the rise. But what do those labels really mean?

Are we getting what we think we are when we buy "all natural" granola bars or "organic" beef? And how local is "local?"

Here's what you need to know about "organic," "local" and "natural" food labels.

What is the legal definition of "natural" when it comes to food?

Whoops -- there isn't one. We're not kidding, there is no government regulation of the word "natural" for any food. Even though most food labels are highly regulated, the word "natural" remains undefined. The only guidance for what qualifies as natural is nothing artificial or synthetic.
Really? Why isn't it legally defined?

The answer is a rather philosophical one: What is nature? Nearly every food item for sale is processed in some way. Who is to say that one thing is more natural than the other? Is beet juice natural if it has been squeezed out of the beet? Aren't chemicals derived from compounds found in nature? Like we said, it gets rather heady.
This Label Means Nothing
But doesn't that mean anything can be labeled "natural"?

Exactly. So far there have been over 50 lawsuits against food companies dubiously claiming a product is "natural". In 2012, General Mills was sued over misrepresenting the 100 percent natural quality of its Nature Valley granola bars, which contain maltodextrin and high maltose corn syrup. Snapple faced a similar lawsuit the year before.

Wait, so even GMO foods can be labeled "natural"?
Yes. Remember California's Proposition 37 in 2012? The ballot measure argued for GMO labels on any genetically modified food, and also stated that any GMO product could not be labeled "natural." 

It was swiftly defeated.

But large food manufacturers are beginning to pay attention anyhow.

Frito-Lay's Tostitos and SunChips have been targeted for their "all natural" label and use of GMOs. Kashi and Kix cereals have also come under similar scrutiny for using the "natural" label while incorporating genetically modified ingredients. In short, the backlash is mounting, and food manufacturers don't want to be sued.

Do people know about this? Did I just miss the boat?

Not at all. A recent survey in June, 2014, by Consumer Reports found that while 60 percent of consumers look for the word "natural" on the foods they buy, two-thirds believe natural products include no artificial ingredients, pesticides or GMOs, including things like artificial growth hormones, antibiotics or drugs in meat.

Many are surprised to learn that "natural" indicates none of that. In fact, Consumer Reports was so surprised by the results of their survey, they've partnered with TakePart to petition FDA and USDA to ban the term's "natural" on food packaging.

What about "local" food? Is that regulated?

This is another vague label. There is no legal definition of what makes a food "local." Some consider a 400-mile radius local. Whole Foods says 200 miles. Other locavores may want food only from within 100 miles; it all depends on who you ask. Amid the debate of what "local" means, there are arguments that food miles are just one component of calculating a dish's carbon foodprint -- production and storage are bigger factors.

No, but it used to be. It took many years for the government to define "organic," but today, the organic industry is highly regulated. Producers must follow a stringent set of rules to be considered USDA Organic:

They can't use any synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers or GMOs. Organic meat, egg and dairy products cannot include growth hormones or antibiotics. Livestock are required to have year-round grazing access and given non-GMO feed. Additionally, a farm cannot have had any of the prohibited substances used on its land for three years prior in order to qualify for USDA Organic status.

You say no "synthetic" pesticides. Are other pesticides used in organic produce?

Yes. Contrary to popular belief, a USDA Organic label does not mean no pesticide use. Pesticides derived from natural sources (like biological pesticides) may be used in producing organic food. Another misunderstanding is the use of synthetics in general.Some synthetic material can actually be used in organic foods, such as pheromones and animal vaccines.

Is there a difference between "organic" and USDA Organic?

Yes! There is a divide for a few reasons: First, it is expensive for a farm to apply for USDA Organic certification. Two, some farmers don't believe in the USDA's organic regulations and think that no pesticides or synthetic materials should be used under organic certification. Three, some farms aren't past that three-year requirement of no pesticide use and therefore are not eligible.

What is Organic, exactly?
The USDA states that the goal of organic foods and organic farming is to "integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity."
Put simply, if you see the "USDA Organic" or "Certified Organic" seal on your food, the item must have an ingredients list and the contents should be 95% or more certified organic, meaning free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dyes, and must not be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation, or genetic engineering, according to the USDA. The remaining 5% may only be foods processed with additives on an approved list.
"Certified Organic" isn't the only label you'll see though. You may also see "100% organic," which means all of the ingredients must meet the guidelines above, or "made with organic," which means that the ingredients must contain 70% or more organic ingredients, the USDA seal cannot be used anywhere on the package, and the remaining 30% of the ingredients may not be foods or processed with additives on a special exclusion list.

Violations of the USDA's organic labeling rules can earn companies civil penalties of up to $11,000. If that seems small, it should. 

The low penalties and the volume of organic products flooding the markets have led to skepticism that the USDA is properly enforcing the label, inspecting foods, and punishing violators. Some worry that "organic" has turned into a marketing term with little meaning. Still, when you buy organic goods at most stores and from most known brands, you can be largely sure that it meets the guidelines.

Why is this all so confusing?

Partly because of lobbyists want to profit from the demand for "natural" and "local" foods, and partly because this is all so new. The landscape of natural, local and organic goods is changing swiftly, and only time will tell where it will go.

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Eve Turow - writer and editor exploring food politics, food culture and Millennials for Huffington Post