My 3 Cents: Organic Foods Vs. Natural Foods -- What Do the Labels Mean?


Last year, overall sales for the grocery industry were up a modest 1.8%, according to the Food Institute. Yet sales of organic items more than doubled that growth rate, up 4.4%. Clearly, we're shopping differently and grocery shopping may never be the same.

Trader Joe's and Whole Foods (WFMI) lean into the organic trend and many major grocery chains, including Safeway (SWY) and Kroger's (KR), have rolled out their own lines of natural and organic items. For consumers, though, deciphering the labels can be tricky.

  • Foods labeled "100% organic" have no synthetic ingredients and can legally use the USDA organic seal.

  • Foods labeled "organic" have a minimum of 95% organic ingredients and are also eligible to use seal.

  • Foods labeled "made with organic ingredients" must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. No seal.

(source: WebMD)

It gets even trickier. "Natural" and "organic" don't mean the same thing. The words "all natural" may be food marketing magic, but the FDA hasn't established a formal definition for the word "natural." It looks like they only object to the labeling if it's put on a food that has added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.

My Take: Go "all natural" all the time, and when it comes to springing for organic items, start with what the nonprofit Environmental Working Group deems the "dirty dozen" -- 12 fruits and vegetables that, when grown by non-organic farmers, are most prone to heavy pesticide residue, among them apples, lettuce and strawberries.

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