Natural vs. Organic: What’s the Difference?

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The average American is exposed to over 100 chemicals from cosmetics, skincare, and cleaning products every day (1).  As news stories and documentaries capture the potential harms lurking in everyday products, many of us have felt an urgent need to prioritize safe, toxin-free products.  It’s no wonder that items marketed as “organic” and “natural” have seen sales surge in recent years.  There’s clearly an appetite for healthier, eco-friendly choices.

But what do “organic” and “natural” really mean?  And are they the same when it comes to your health and the environment? (The answer is no!)

Join us as we dive into these questions, and examine the labels that guide our purchases (and dollars).

What Does Natural Mean?

What Does the FDA Define as Natural?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there isn’t a strict, official definition for “natural.”  The FDA generally interprets the term to mean that a product does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances (2).

The Broad Market Interpretation

Without any official guidelines, the “natural” label can vary. Many products with this label might still undergo significant processing or have ingredients that aren’t straightforwardly sourced from nature. This makes “natural” a flexible marketing term, emphasizing the need for consumers to scrutinize product details.

Myths about Natural

It’s a misconception to assume that “natural” automatically means healthier, safer, or eco-friendly. Remember, not all natural substances are beneficial (e.g., poison ivy is natural), and not all man-made items are harmful. Furthermore, a “natural” label doesn’t confirm a product as organic, pesticide-free, or GMO-free.  When deciding between products, it’s important to research beyond labels like “natural” to make informed, healthy choices.

What Does Organic Mean?

What is Organic?

“Organic” refers to products grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or GMOs (genetically modified organisms).  The goal of organic farming is to promote conservation and an ecologically balanced environment, by minimizing pollution and other harmful practices.

Criteria for Being Organic

In order to be certified organic, a product must meet the following criteria (3):

  • Grown in uncontaminated soil, without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides
  • GMO-free: no genetic modifications
  • Separated from non-organic counterparts
  • For livestock: organic feed, outdoor access, no antibiotics or hormones.

The USDA's Role in Oversight

Any product carrying the “organic” label has been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) through its National Organic Product (NOP).  These products are guaranteed to contain at least 95% organic ingredients and have met rigorous standards from production to sales.  The process often requires extensive documentation, regular inspections, and sometimes even higher production costs.

Natural vs. Organic

What is the Difference Between Organic and Natural Labeling?

“Organic” is a strictly regulated term that ensures products are free from synthetic pesticides, additives, and GMOs.  In contrast, “natural” is an unregulated term that suggests minimal processing and no artificial ingredients.  Anyone use the term “natural,” leading to questionable marketing practices and greenwashing claims.

Is Natural or Organic Better?

When it comes to rigorous standards, environmental practices, and consumer transparency, “organic” is superior to “’natural.”  The USDA requires organic products to be free from synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, genetic engineering, and antibiotics or hormones.  In contrast, any company can use the term “natural” in its labeling.

A Deeper Dive

  • Who can use the label?
    • Natural: This broad term suggests minimal processing and no artificial ingredients. But with no official regulation, it leaves room for interpretation.
    • Organic: A label tightly regulated by the USDA, products are required to be free from synthetic chemicals, prioritize eco-friendly practices, and undergo regular inspections.
  • Production and practices
    • Natural: Despite its connotations, “natural” doesn’t guarantee sustainable farming or pesticide-free products.
    • Organic: Standards require environmentally-friendly practices, from crop rotation to biological pest control.
  • Implications for your health
    • Natural: Sounds wholesome but, due to lack of regulations, might be inconsistent in health benefits.  As an example, snake venom is all-natural but not particularly beneficial for your health.
    • Organic: Generally healthier, given its freedom from synthetic chemicals.  A focus on nutrient-rich soil and feed leads to more nutritious produce and animal products (4).

In summary, while both labels hint at health and quality, choose organic over natural if it is available.  With the USDA’s stringent regulations and transparent practices, you’re getting exactly what you’re promised.

Is Organic Worth the Price?

Why is Organic More Expensive?

Organic products are typically more expensive than their conventional and natural counterparts, but this isn’t some random markup.  Organic producers invest more into their products, to ensure that they meet the USDA’s stringent health and environmental standards:

  1. Eco-friendly practices: From crop rotation to sustainable water use, these environmentally conscious methods can be costlier upfront.
  2. Natural pest control: Forgoing synthetic pesticides means alternative, sometimes pricier, pest control solutions.
  3. Smaller yields: Without growth enhancers like fertilizers, antibiotics, and hormones, organic farms might produce less.  This makes their products more expensive, but what they do produce is pure and nutritious.
  4. Certification costs: Securing and maintaining that coveted USDA Organic label isn’t free, since farmers must pay for the inspections themselves (5).

Weighing the Real Value of Organic vs. Natural Products

For organic products, the higher price tag also comes with real, tangible benefits:

  • Health value: With organic, you’re minimizing exposure to pesticides, synthetic hormones, and other chemicals. Your health is an investment, not an expense.
  • Environmental value: By supporting organic products, you’re enabling sustainable farming, healthier soil, and reduced environmental degradation.
  • Transparency and trust: Organic offers clarity. With natural, it’s a guessing game about what’s truly inside a product.

While we recognize the benefits of organic products, we also understand that everyone’s budget is different and choosing organic may not always be feasible. Always make the best choice for your health and well-being within your means.  Whatever you decide, every informed decision is still a step toward a healthier future.

Making Informed Choices

In our pursuit of healthier living and more sustainable choices, stores can feel like a maze of terms, labels, and claims. As consumers, how can we navigate this to make the best decisions for ourselves and our families?

Here are some practical tips:

  1. Start simple: Begin by scrutinizing ingredient lists. Fewer ingredients often mean less processing. And if you can’t pronounce it, you might want to think twice before consuming it.
  2. Look for certifications: For products claiming to be organic, search for recognized certifications like the USDA Organic label. These signify that the product has met specific standards.
  3. Beware of ambiguous terms: Phrases like “made with natural ingredients” can be misleading. While the product might contain some natural ingredients, it doesn’t mean it’s free from artificial or synthetic ones.
  4. Use technology: Many apps now allow you to scan barcodes to get more in-depth information about products.

In an age flooded with information and marketing strategies, an informed consumer is an empowered one. Understanding the nuances between “natural” and “organic” equips you to make decisions that align with your health goals, ethical values, and budgetary needs. By reading labels and supporting thoughtful brands, we can prioritize our health while driving the market toward transparency and authenticity.


  1. “Women Put an Average of 168 Chemicals on Their Bodies Each Day, Consumer Group Says.”  ABC, 2015.
  2. “Use of the Term Natural on Food Labeling.”  FDA, 2018.
  3. “About the Organic Standards.”  USDA.
  4. “Organic foods contain higher levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer.”  NIH, 2010.
  5. “Becoming a Certified Operation.”  USDA.