Conventional, Natural, Organic, Oh My!

Have you ever found yourself at the grocery store, deep in a mental debate about exactly which tomato or apple to buy?  Stores today provide an abundance of choices – but more choices mean more decisions.  It can be quite confusing to decide on which labeled items to buy with choices like conventional, natural and organic. Furthermore, there is a lot of controversy regarding the agricultural methods used in growing our foods. However, some studies state that there is little actual difference between these procedures except for the cost to the public. Other studies favor organics over the other two, putting the choice back in the lap of the consumer.  Below, we break down the differences between conventional, natural, and organic to help you make your next shopping trip a better informed one.

Conventionally grown foods began during the Industrial Revolution and became a major influence on agriculture after World War II. These products are grown in huge industrial farms that use the most modern growing techniques, which include pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified organisms, which can deliver consistent crops. They also produce only one or two crops per growing year in the same field.

Foods labeled “natural” are the most obscure and have not readily been defined. There are no regulations regarding the growing and processing of natural foods, so any food can claim to be “natural”. However, regarding naturally labeled meats and poultry, the USDA maintains that they contain no artificial ingredients or added color and are minimally processed.

Organic foods are under strict scrutiny by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the regulations for these foods became law in the The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), enacted under Title 21 of the 1990 Farm Bill. It set up uniform national standards for the growing and handling of foods labeled “organic.” It also established “the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) to set national standards for the production, handling, and processing of organically grown agricultural products. and the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory organization to the Secretary of Agriculture regarding these standards. The basic guidelines for organically grown foods are that they are grown without synthetic insecticides, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. They are free of hormones and other synthetic fertilizers and substances. They are farmed using reusable resources with an emphasis on conservation of the soil and water. There are no Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), flavors or coloring added to organic foods. Organic meats, dairy products, poultry and poultry products are derived from animals fed organic feed or grazed on organic pastures and given no antibiotics or growth hormones. This is the only official category that is regulated by the USDA.

Next time you’re shopping, pay attention to these different labels and notice price differences amongst the varieties.  Ultimately, it’s up to each consumer to decide which foods to invest in.  But remember: All foods, no matter how they are grown, have the same basic food values and nutrients.