Organic? Natural? The Confusion of Reading Food Labels: Foodie Underground


ColumnAre you confused by reading food labels? You are not alone.

In a sea of choices, reading food labels can be the thing that help to guide us in the right direction. Leading busy lives, we don’t always have the time to do all the research on everything we buy, so we look for certain indicators to help us get what we want. Some go for “organic” some go for “non-GMO.” Ultimately food labels should help us to know what we’re buying. Unfortunately, they don’t always serve that purpose.

According to a recent Consumer Reports study, around 60 percent of people look for the “natural” label when they grocery shop because they think that products labeled “natural” are better for them than those products without the label. In fact, 66 percent of Americans believe “natural” means a processed food has no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms. But the truth is, it doesn’t mean any of that.

There’s actually no FDA definition of “natural,” but “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” Which means you can essentially slap the word “natural” onto a whole lot of things. For example, when it comes to “natural flavors,” you can have “any number of (naturally derived) chemicals concocted to enhance the taste of your snack,” writes Grist. “They’re dreamed up, extracted, and blended by flavorists in labs to preserve what your food would have tasted like before it was processed, frozen, heated, pasteurized, or otherwise addled on the way to your grocery store.” Which is why you get things like Diet 7-Up boasting “100% natural flavors.”

A food marketing word that has come to carry no meaning, Consumer Reports actually launched a petition to ban the use of “natural” on food products.

What is a conscious food shopper to do? Simple. Buy real food.

Let’s go back to the FDA for help. According to the agency, “natural” is hard to define because, “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.”

Ah yes, there we have it, the one phrase that says it all: “food product.” A food product is not the same as real food. It is food that has been processed and made into something else. Some food products can be fairly harmless, a basic granola for example – as long as it’s not hyped up on tons of additives, and other things that are simply weird. Go-gurt anyone? As a rule of thumb, I am sure we can all agree that if a product comes in a flavor of “cool cotton candy” you can go ahead and assume that it’s not real food.

Which brings us to another one of the food labels that causes a lot of confusion: organic.

Organic is different, because it has guidelines and an entire certification process behind it. In a world where we’re ruled by industrial agriculture, organic is better than non-organic. But remember that there are plenty of small-scale farmers that can’t afford the certification, and like with anything, we shouldn’t let the organic label stop us from doing just a little thinking when we shop.

An organic banana is still a banana, and unless you live in the tropics, that banana had to travel a long way to get to you.

An organic apple from New Zealand individually wrapped in plastic, is still an apple from afar that’s protected by a single-use disposable wrapping.

Organic goji berries are still exotic superfoods that could easily be replaced with something more local.

The reality is, you don’t have to master the world of food labels to eat well, you just need to use common sense. Buying something that isn’t whole foods or grains? Turn that box or bag around and look at the ingredients list. If it’s full of a bunch of things you can’t pronounce, don’t buy it. The fewer the ingredients, the better.

We don’t need to overthink what we buy. In fact, the more we simplify what we buy, the better off we are. That means apples and not apple chips. Black beans and not bean dip. Sparkling water with a slice of fruit in it and not a soda boasting “100% natural flavors.” Plain yogurt with a spoonful of jam and not a Go-Gurt.

Don’t be fooled by a natural food label. Eat real food instead.

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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at

Image: Quinn Dombrowski

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.