Sorting Out Natural and Organic

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A focus on health promotion and disease prevention has emerged as not just a temporary movement over the past year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also as a permanent shift in long-term wellness and nutrition. A number of consumers have heightened interest in improving their diets and choosing foods that prevent or treat chronic conditions, including diabetes, obesity, cancer, kidney disease and high blood pressure. Particular attention is being given to natural and organic foods. Associates at your store, or on the regional or corporate level, can help alleviate customer confusion by answering some key questions to improve the shopping experience as customers navigate natural and organic offerings.

What Do “Natural” and “Organic” Mean?

The term “natural” doesn’t have a formal definition as it applies to food; instead, there’s a long-standing implication in the usage of the term. “Natural” is meant to mean that nothing synthetic or unnatural has been included in, or added to, a food that wouldn’t normally be expected to be in that product. Organic, however, indicates a USDA Certified Organic product that has been produced under approved methods that include certain cultural, biological and mechanical practices. Organic production aims to promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Certain practices aren’t allowed in organic practice, such as the use of synthetic fertilizers and genetic engineering (Products of this process are known as “genetically modified organisms,” or GMOs).

Are There Certain Foods I Should or Shouldn’t Buy as Natural or Organic?

Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a list of its top 15 fresh conventional (non-organic) produce picks, “Clean Fifteen,” which contain the lowest amounts of pesticide residues, alongside a list of 12 conventional fresh fruits and vegetables, “Dirty Dozen,” with the highest amounts of pesticide residues. The EWG encourages consumers to choose fewer foods on the Dirty Dozen list (examples include strawberries, spinach and kale), while being less critical of foods selected for the “Clean Fifteen” list (examples include avocados, sweet corn, and pineapple). However, the USDA Pesticide Data Program found in 2018 that more than 99% of products it sampled had residues well below safety standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Produce for Better Health Foundation has questioned EWG’s motives, noting that arousing unnecessary fear about pesticide use is counterproductive to increasing Americans’ intake of fruits and vegetables, which is a well-recognized public health concern.

Are Natural and Organic Foods Healthier?

The general consensus is that the healthfulness of natural, organic and conventional products is highly comparable. The health benefits derived from food produced through various agricultural methods makes minimal impact to nutrition. Some studies cite modestly higher amounts of phenolic compounds (beneficial plant compounds) in organic produce, and marginally increased omega-3 fatty acids in dairy, but many other studies come up short on determining a clear difference. Customers may be surprised to learn that much of the attention that eating organic has received regarding its impact on nutrition benefit is largely unfounded.

What’s the Bottom Line?

It’s well established that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, low-fat dairy (or fortified soy alternatives) and whole grains is protective to our health. This is more explicitly outlined in December’s release of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-25.

Natural and organic foods should be framed as a choice to the consumer, perhaps if they feel strongly about avoiding certain characteristics of food, such as some synthetic substances, or in supporting particular food production practices. Natural, organic and conventional foods are all produced safely, and a variety of wholesome choices from any of these agricultural methods can enhance the quality of our diets.  

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