Organic Food or Natural Food: Which Way to Go?

Aditi Shenai

May 6, 2022

These days, the supermarket shelves are full of numerous food items labelled as ‘Organic Foods’, ‘Natural Foods’ and many more. But what exactly do these labels imply, and what should one opt for? Experts say natural and organic foods are best for your health, well-being, and the environment. Although organic and natural foods have some overlapping factors, they are different. Hence, you should not use these terms interchangeably. While organic foods farming focuses more on the environmental aspects, natural foods concentrate on acquiring raw products that nature provides us without any human interference.

Studies show that organic and natural foods provide more health benefits than their conventional counterparts. It is mainly due to the focus on eliminating harmful chemicals and synthetic additives, which usually get into regular food items. However, understanding how both these foods differ from each other and which one we should opt to get the most benefits, in the long run, we need a more detailed analysis of the two. The following sections explain both food types in detail. 

What are Organic Foods?

The term ‘organic’ in organic foods refers to the farming or the production method of the food. Primarily, it means that the food growing process has been organic, meaning without any manufactured or synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. Moreover, organic agriculture does not allow genetically modifying organisms (GMO) or the use of any chemical herbicides.

Instead of these harmful agricultural practices, organic agriculture uses environmentally and socially sustainable techniques. For example, following crop rotation techniques, using animal and plant manures instead of synthetic ones, hand weeding and biological pest control are standard practices implemented in organic agriculture. 

Studies show how organic agriculture provides immense environmental benefits and can offer products that can cater to both the general and premium markets. Today, most organic foods come from Asia, Africa and Latin America. However, countries worldwide are still trying to expand the implementation of this environmentally safe means of production.

What are Natural Foods?

The Food Standards Authority (FSA) has defined Natural Foods as foods free of synthetic or artificial ingredients or additives. However, authorities or researchers have no standard definition to precisely determine natural foods. But, in general, anything that is not genetically modified and is free of artificial synthesis is safe to be called natural. It broadly refers to raw and unprocessed food such as fruits, vegetables, unrefined grains, sugar, unprocessed cow’s milk etc.

What ‘Natural’ Means Around the World?

The definition of ‘natural foods’ varies within countries across the globe. 

  • In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, foods that have been produced only by nature and not processed by humans in any form can be called natural. 
  • In the Asian continent, natural ingredients that have been subject to minor modifications,  such as producing butter from cow’s milk or juice from raw fruits, are also called natural.
  • Natural, in the USA means, any brand which has ‘Natural’ present in the brand name itself cannot use it to imply that the food products they offer are natural until they meet the regulatory standards. So, the US government has their norms to tag foods as natural.

Organic v/s Natural

Given the increasing popularity of both organic and natural foods in the present time, everyone needs to be aware of both the pros and cons of organic foods and natural foods. It will help you choose the food type best suited to you. In addition, it will also give you a better understanding of the similarities and differences between organic foods and natural foods.

Organic Foods: Pros and Cons

Pros of Organic Foods

Environmentally Friendly

Organic agricultural and rearing methods produce organic food. As per studies, it is both environmentally and socially sustainable. Furthermore, these organic practices of growing produce focus on nullifying the use of artificial chemicals such as synthetic fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, or genetically modifying the organisms. Thus, consuming organic produce can reduce one’s exposure to harmful chemicals.

Higher Quantity of Good Fats

Research shows that organic dairy and meat products contain a higher level of omega-3 fatty acids compared to natural or traditional items. For example, omega-3 fatty acid levels are about 40% higher in organically grown chicken, eggs, and pork than in non-organic meat.  Additionally, organic milk products also contain higher vitamin E and iron levels. Omega-3 fatty acids are highly beneficial for one’s body as they promote good cholesterol and heart health.

Organic Foods are Tastier at Times

Although many claim that organic and non-organic foods taste almost the same, some food products can differ in their flavour profile. Fruits and vegetables that grow organically benefit from the usage of environment-friendly fertilisers. They also need a lower water content, leading to organic fruits and vegetables having a fuller flavour profile than conventional produce.

More Antioxidants

According to studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition, organically grown produce contains 20 to 40% more antioxidants than its conventional counterparts. That points to the fact that organic food provides more nutrition, vitamins and minerals than other foods.

Supports the Local Economy

Most local stores stock up the self-grown organic produce for their consumers to enjoy, as organic foods are not easy to transport. When you buy these food items from the local stores, the money goes back into the local economy, and local sellers can reinvest to earn profits. It ensures a better living profile in one’s locality in the long run, and it also helps support more people to produce their foods organically and sustainably. 

Reduced Threat of Antibiotic Consumption

In traditional animal rearing methods, animals are often fed or injected with antibiotics to prevent sickness or death. These drugs remain in their system through the butchering process and even till the time we consume them. If you consume an excess of those animals’ meat, your body produces antibiotic resilience. Harmful bacteria can develop immunity to antibiotics and harm our bodies in the long run. Hence, organic meat free from antibiotics or added growth hormones is safe for consumption.

Higher Levels of Salicylic Acid

Organic foods have a high amount of salicylic acid. Salicylic acid helps keep your arteries hardening due to the impact of different kinds of heart diseases. Given the tremendous benefits, a higher level of salicylic acid in organic produce is good for your body.

Cons of Organic Foods

Higher Cost

Multiple reports comparing the cost of 100 organic foods and their non-organic traditional counterparts show that organic foods cost almost 45-50% more. While some products like olive oil, cream cheese, carrots and honey cost the same or lower than their traditional counterparts, the rest cost way higher.   

Not Easily Available Everywhere

The demand for organic produce is increasing rapidly across the globe, especially among millennials. However, not all places have easy access to organic produce. With most organic agricultural sites in Asia, South and Latin America, transporting the organic produce become a challenge as they have a shorter shelf life and don’t travel well. Due to these limitations, organic food supply is scarce in many parts of the globe.

Short Shelf Life

Most organic foods have a shorter lifespan as compared to their traditional counterparts. Fresh produce, especially vegetables, shrinks up about 50% as fast and needs to be frozen to keep them from spoiling quickly, especially during summers and monsoons. In addition, organic foods spoil quicker due to the lack of preservatives added to them. Although this is beneficial from a health point of view, it leads to massive amounts of food wastage across the globe.

Requires More Physical Labour

Organic foods take much more physical labour both on the fields and in the pens and animal husbandry. It is due to the focus of organic produce being on natural growing methods, which involve very few automated processes leading it to be physical labour-intensive. For example, spraying natural fertiliser, soil tilling, and hand weeding are incredibly labour-intensive and take months longer than their conventional counterparts. 

Natural Foods: Pros and Cons

Pros of Natural Foods

Promotes Health and are Socially Sustainable

Natural foods, by definition state, that they are foods that have no synthetic and artificial additives, such as food colouring, flavourings, or preservatives added to them. That makes them much healthier to consume and promotes better health and well-being. For example, some studies show that consuming natural foods in the long term has led to improvements in the health conditions of diabetic people.

Costs Lesser than their Organic Counterparts

Natural foods are usually grown using conventional agricultural and farming practices. Although even natural foods do not allow any synthetic chemicals or genetic hormones in the plants or the livestock, it allows using standard farming practices. As a result,  it leads to higher yields and faster crop and production cycles. Hence, natural foods cost much less than their premium organic counterparts. Also, given that natural farming isn’t as labour intensive, it cuts down hugely on labour costs.

MSG and Preservative Free

Natural foods are raw produce provided to us by nature without any intervention by humans. Natural foods are free from artificial man-made additives, such as food colouring, preservatives or flavours such as MSG, making them safe to consume. Artificial additives cause obesity problems, liver damage, blood sugar fluctuations and an elevated risk of heart diseases. You can avoid all of these problems by opting for natural foods instead.

Cons of Natural Foods

Spoils Faster

Natural foods have a short shelf life and spoil much faster than their organic counterparts. In addition, due to the lack of artificial preservatives and additives used to increase shelf life, the expiry dates of these kinds of products lie between 3 to 7 days. That again leads to food wastage in many stores across the world.

‘Natural’ is Open to Interpretation

The WHO and food organisations worldwide haven’t fully defined what ‘Natural foods’ really mean. That leads to it being quite open to interpretation in different regions across the globe. While countries like the UK strictly define natural foods as raw and unrefined produce that we obtain from nature without any human interference, Asian countries allow a bit more relaxation on the definition. In the Asian and Middle Eastern regions, humans can process natural foods up to a certain level, for example, processing cow’s milk into butter or cottage cheese.

Organic Foods versus Natural Foods: The Final Verdict

While organic foods are slightly healthier to consume than their traditional counterparts, natural foods offer us immense health benefits because they are raw and unprocessed by humans. In addition, some recent studies by the Stanford Medical School show that the number of health benefits offered by organic foods might be comparable to what natural foods provide, and even marginally lesser in some cases, such as honey and dairy products. 

Given that organic foods usually fall into the ‘premium’ category in terms of pricing, many might choose to opt for natural foods instead, which are much more widely available and are cheaper and priced almost equivalent to their traditional counterparts. But then, one cannot overlook the environmental boost that organic agricultural methods provide. They reduce the soil from getting harmed by harmful chemicals and promote healthy farming, cropping, and animal rearing methods.

Both have immense benefits on our health, well-being, environment, and economy. Whether to go organic or natural is thus entirely up to one’s personal preferences as neither is better or worse than the other. One must make conscious and well-informed choices while purchasing either kind of product and fall into marketing gimmicks and choose what suits best one’s well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q. Which is better: organic or natural food?

A. Studies show that organic foods show marginal benefits over natural foods. Organic food has a slightly higher nutrient content than natural food. The amount of pesticide residue and toxic metals found in organic produce is significantly lower. Organic livestock has more elevated amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial to human health.

Q. What is the most natural food?

A.  Food items provided to us directly by nature without processing by humans are the most natural foods. In layman’s terms, raw unprocessed foods are the most natural. Additionally, foods with no man-made artificial preservatives or additives are natural. Some examples are fruits, vegetables, cow’s milk etc.

Q. Is natural food healthy?

A.  Yes, in terms of nutrition and vitamins, natural foods are as healthy as organic foods. The only con that natural food has is the number of pesticides used in the soil while growing them. There is no concrete reason that natural foods are not as healthy as organic foods.

Q. How can you tell if food is organic?

A. Organic produce is usually labelled as ‘Organic’. However, this practice isn’t well established in India yet. The alternative is to observe the PLU – Price Look-Up – Code. A five-digit code starting with 9 means that the food item is organically grown. Similarly, a four-digit Price Look-Up Code indicates that the product is naturally grown without any genetic modifications.

Q. Do organic foods taste better?

A. Organic foods taste the same as natural foods do. Organically produced meat, dairy and poultry products have a higher Omega 3 fatty acid content which might cause the taste to vary slightly from natural foods. However, it is negligible, or a minuscule difference in the taste offered to us by either category of foods.

Q. Is meat natural food?

A. By definition of natural foods, it is hard to categorise meat as natural or not. Natural foods are raw foods provided to us directly from nature without any processing done by humans. While meat is offered to humans by nature, one needs to follow specific steps to obtain meat from animals before it can be made fit for consumption. While some countries like the UK do not recognise such foods as natural, Asian and Middle Eastern countries allow meat, dairy and poultry products to be termed natural.

Q. What food can you eat every day- organic or natural?

A. One can choose to consume either organic food or natural foods regularly. While pros and cons exist for organic and natural foods, there is no definite answer to which is best for consumption. Both provide comparable amounts of nutrients and benefits to one’s body.

Q. What is considered all-natural food?

A. Foods that have no artificial flavours and no artificial or extra additives and have not been processed by humans are considered all-natural foods. While what is termed ‘all-natural food’ is open to interpretation, one can safely say that raw and unprocessed foods are all-natural.

Q. What is the healthiest fruit?

A.  Fruits rich in Vitamin C are considered the healthiest of all. Berries, grapefruits, oranges, lemons and lychees are some of the healthiest fruits which everyone can consume. These fruits are rich in antioxidants which detoxify your body and give a considerable immunity boost. Plus, given that they are low in calories and sugars, there are fewer limitations on the amount one can consume.

About the Author

M.Sc in: Dietetics and Applied Nutrition from Manipal University. Worked: All over India and have been involved in helping set up nutrition departments in start ups. Interested in lifestyle based nutrition. Mantra: A healthy lifestyle isn't a choice to be made or discarded, it's a way of life!

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