September 2, 2010

Know Your Food! ~ Marissa Faye

Organic versus natural.  What is the real difference?

We all know of organic foods and natural foods and, for most of us, those end up in one big category of “yes, eat that, it’s healthy.”

But upon perusing the aisles of Whole Foods, we can’t help but notice that some products are labeled as “natural” while others are “organic.”  Many of us fill our carts with either of the two, unaware of the real difference and certain that we have made the healthy choice (because it is Whole Foods, after all).

It wasn’t until the green pepper incident that I decided to delve a little deeper into what it really was that I was consuming.

I stood for a good five minutes before the glorious wall of Whole Foods’ produce pondering over green bell peppers.  In one section they were labeled as $3.99/pound and, in a section just to the right of this, they were labeled as $1.99/poun.  In a moment of confusion (due to some missing information on the labels), I asked the closest person donning a green apron if they were aware of the difference.

“Well, these are organic and these are natural,” they said.  I shrugged and reached for the cheaper, natural peppers.

But on my long drive back into the mountains, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why were the organic peppers so darn expensive?

As it turns out, their darn-expensive pricing in comparison to their natural competitors is due to a multitude of substantial differences.

Today, certified organic foods are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the National Organic Program (NOP) to all manufacturers wishing to produce certified organic food.

Growing organic requires the manufacturer to meet site-specific standards.  These standards requiring cultural, biological, and mechanical practices to foment a steady cycle of resources.  They must also promote ecological stasis and support the conservation of biodiversity.

To ensure that these regulations are properly met, the division of Compliance & Enforcement takes on the task of investigating any reports of violation as well as reinforcing the handling and production of the food.  Sad to say, our beloved organic farmers are not always as compliant with these regulations as we would like to imagine. Those who violate the rules set forth by the USDA can be suspended or revoked from the program (depending on the violation).

Okay, so we have covered the basics of organic food production and the standard procedures it takes to be considered “certified organic.”

Now, the real question is, how do these procedures differ from food considered to be natural?

Generally, natural food implies that the food is not chemically altered or synthesized.  It refers to food found naturally in nature.  But within this lies the breaking point that separates natural from organic: “natural” is not a legally standardized term.  Therefore, there is no governmental regulation on what is considered a “natural” food!

Many foods labeled as “natural” still contain artificial and altered counterparts, as well as pesticides and environmentally detrimental products.

I would love to say, “buy organic!” and be done with it.  But to many (including myself), this is simply more than we can afford.  So it is important to note that I am not here to slander natural products as evil.  Natural (and “all-natural”) pasta is often a hell of a lot better than its totally processed relative–ramen noodles–and so forth.

Sometimes natural foods will specify if they are pesticide-free and all those other what-nots we would hope for it to be.

So, hey, all I’m saying is, next time we are perusing aisles of Whole Foods (or wherever) let’s take a minute to read the labels and know our food.

Marissa Faye is a cultural explorer hailing from the far eastern lands of Sherborn, Massachusetts.  She is like a sponge–absorbing all things around her with a forever unquenched curiosity.  Often times she is hidden away in her mountain fortress, avidly writing tales of fact and fiction. She is a flower child at heart and an enthusiast of  art, music, food, and the infinite explorations of life.  Zombie-lovers often refer to her as Tree.

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