Friday, May 20, 2016

Knowing your foods – Natural vs. Organic

Imagine you’re shopping for some groceries. Most products have very appealing packaging, in order to try and persuade you to buy the goods (in favour of their competition). Some of these foods have food claims in order to inform you about their benefits. When strolling through the supermarket, you come across a new applesauce brand, and are eager to try it. There are 2 jars that you can choose from: one with an “organic” label on it, whereas the other one says “natural”. What jar would you choose?

Food Claims 

Did you pick the “natural” applesauce jar? If you did, then you’re like the majority of consumers. But why did you make that choice? Does it sound better? And is it this really a better choice? Do you know what these claims really mean?

People believe that a ‘natural’ product has all sorts of benefits, such as limited or no addition of artificial colors/flavoring, no antibiotics used, and no pesticides used. And even though this would be true for the jar of ‘organic’ applesauce, it does not apply to the jar of ‘natural’ applesauce. Actually, the claim ‘natural’ has barely been regulated, and therefore it could technically be used on any product.

Urvashi Rangen, Ph.D., the director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center, also explains this preconception in a press release: “We've seen time and again that majority of consumers believe the 'natural' label means more than it does, and by buying 'natural' foods, they may think they're getting the same benefits as organic, but for less money”.

Looking at the results of the 2016 Food Label Survey by theConsumer Reports® National Research Center, more people buy foods that claim to be natural (73%) than those products that are organic (58%). When comparing the price of natural food to organic food, many consumers (67%) say organic food is more expensive than natural food. Considering that the claim organic is heavily regulated, whereas natural is not, it makes sense that organic is much more expensive. So what are the regulations?

In Europe, according to the commission regulation (EU) No 271/2010product can have the “organic” claim, if the production process respects nature, and the product and its contents are produced in a sustainable way. Additionally, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the use of GMOs in these products are not allowed, and there are strict limitations to the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics. Furthermore, the use of food additives and processing aids and other inputs is strictly limited. Finally, most of the inputs for farm production come from the farm itself using local resources and local knowledge. (For more information about organic products in the EU, click here.)

EU Organic Logo

The word “natural” only entails that products have to have natural (and thus no artificial) flavoring, and the claim can only be used in situations where it is not ‘misleading’. This is however a very vague term, since it is unclear what would be considered  ‘misleading’? For example, if you find a juice of freshly pressed apples, but sweetened with stevia, could this be considered natural? Stevia is a ‘natural’ sweetener after all? But how natural is this really? Yes, stevia is a plant extract, but in order to obtain this sweetener, it has to be extracted chemically from the plant with ethanol… So is the apple juice then natural or not? Putting this more generally: how do you describe products that can be found in nature in its origin, but have undergone some processing when preparing the product? And how do you judge a product if its package is "natural" in terms of color and style (i.e. greens hues and biological pictures, yet without claim) and comes across as a "responsible choice", but is stuffed with added sweeteners, fat and/or salt? There is no regulation for such cases, and thus leaves for a lot of ambiguity in the food marketing. (For more information on nutrition claims in Europe, visit this website).

The tendency to try and eat more natural is a very positive development, but we have to be very wary of the pitfalls. Not all claims that are used on foods are as heavily regulated as “organic”, while many try to live off the good reputation of the heavily regulated claims. Even more so, it remains to be seen if products that carry ‘natural’ claims are really natural products. It is the goal of marketing and packaging to try and grab our attention. However, for a consumer to be really informed, he or she should read the label of the food. If you are attracted by an applesauce that is ‘natural’ in it’s packaging, yet upon examination of the food label you find that the product is less natural than you had initially thought, how truthful is this natural packaging then? Alas, under the guise of « the consumer should read the label anyway and can see exactly what is and is not in the product » the marketers are playing by the rules, yet you may feel mislead.

Overall, many ‘natural’ products may truly be a healthier food choice when compared to other conventional yet comparable products. However, the marketing strategies behind these products may benefit from more strictly regulated claims such as ‘organic’, and therefore you may be falling for a marketing strategy if you are not aware of the differences between claims, and what the claims really stand for. Where some exaggeration in advertising is certainly allowed, we should all be aware of the marketing strategies that may be used, and always fall back on the nutrition information especially in case of doubt. That is the only way to make a truly informed choice. Naturally. 


Maartje Mulders is a PhD Student at the Center for Social and Cultural Psychology at ULB (Université Libre de Bruxelles)


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