It’s Natural Vs. Organic and Organic is Losing

Sometimes I weep for the average consumer.

Okay, I’m embellishing just a bit, but sometimes I can’t help but think that the game is rigged against the Joe and Jane Doe of Averageville, Kansas. They go into a supermarket, and see “Natural” products placed right next to “Organic” products, and, if they think about their options at all, come to the conclusion that “Organic” is simply a fancy way of saying Natural. And since the Natural products are cheaper, they make the purchase that makes them feel good about themselves and save a few cents in the process.

From Food Biz Daily:

Despite well-defined certification standards, organic products have failed to win consumers’ trust: 31% said “100 percent natural” is the most desirable eco-friendly product label claim, compared to 14% picking “100 percent organic.”

Despite strict regulations, shoppers think of the organic category as both more unregulated and, of course, more expensive.

But, as I mentioned above, the game is rigged.

Let’s create an example. I have a new product called Kate’s Natural Corn Flakes. Does the FDA have any regulations in place to ensure that my Corn Flakes are, in fact, natural?

It depends upon your perspective. The FDA has no holistic definition that can guarantee the consumer that my finalized product is thoroughly natural. What they do have are requirements that define what constitutes “natural” ingredients or flavorings. To their thinking, if all of the flavorings and ingredients are natural, then the entire product has to be natural, right?

Unfortunately, the requirements for what constitutes natural and artificial are open to interpretation. The official FDA definition of natural flavoring is published in the Code of Federal Regulations (21CFR101.22). It states:

The term artificial flavor or artificial flavoring means any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof. Artificial flavor includes the substances listed in §§172.515(b) and 182.60 of this chapter except where these are derived from natural sources.

The rest of the sections seeks to clarify the of 21CFR101.22 If you can read through all of it, the end definition of natural allows for multiple interpretations, and fails to discuss the means in which the ingredients have been processed and or created. Due to this, labeling claims are reviewed on a case by case basis. And because the FDA is horribly understaffed, many claims of a product’s “Natural”-ness get into the marketplace unchallenged. The most famous example I can think of is 7up’s claim that their soda was “all natural”, and it took a somewhat loud public backlash to revert that claim. Of course, now they call it “7up with 100% natural flavors“, which is really just a question of semantics at this point.

“Organic”, on the other hand, is not defined by the FDA, but by the USDA. The regulatory requirements for what constitutes “Organic” do not only cover ingredients, but each production or handling operation or specified portion of a production or handling operation that produces or handles crops, livestock, livestock products, or other agricultural products that are intended to be sold, labeled, or represented as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic”.

The entire certification requirements are spelled out in 7CFR205…the reading is long and as dry as you can imagine. But the point here is that “Natural” only deals with the ingredients of the products upon the shelves. “Organic” deals with the entire process. Process which, by the way, adds on costs to the end consumer.

So when the consumer sees Kate’s Corn Flakes on the shelf for $3.00 a box sitting next to Barry’s Organic Corn Flakes for $3.50 a box, which one do you think they’re going to buy? Do you really think that the every day consumer has taken the time to understand the nuances of these definitions?