Organic, Natural and Everything Else: Decoding the Food Labels

| Posted On Jul 27, 2012 | By:

Research on food trends in the United States indicates that Americans have a growing appetite for healthier foods.  According to the Institute of Food Technologists, most consumers believe that limiting processed food is one of the most important components of healthier eating, and natural ingredients rank third on the list of most looked-for items on the ingredient label, after type of fat/oil and sweeteners.

Stroll through any grocery store and you’ll see an ever-increasing number of natural and organic foods, as well as hormone-free meats and milks, free-range chicken, and cage-free eggs.  You’ve probably noticed that these products cost more, but are they really better for you – and, are they worth extra the money?  It depends…

Lab testing on many of these products suggests that in terms of their nutritional value, both conventional and these “healthier foods” are very similar.  Both provide comparable amounts of most nutrients.  The difference is in how they are produced, and whether they contain unwanted additives or ingredients.  Surprisingly, not all claims made on food labels are regulated, so it’s important to understand the labeling terms in order to become an informed consumer.  Here’s an overview of the most common “healthy sounding” label terms and what you should look for the next time you’re at the grocery store:

Natural –Although there is no formal definition for the use of “natural” on food labels, it’s generally agreed that foods containing this label are free from artificial ingredients and preservatives, and they are minimally processed.  The  USDA regulates “natural” labeling only on meat and poultry products, and food manufacturers who post the “natural” claim on their products do not have to be certified or inspected.

Should you buy it?  Remember, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s healthy.  Corn, oil, and salt may all be natural ingredients, but that bag of chips – not so good for the waistline.  Use common sense when looking at the “natural” label.  If it sounds too good to be true, or the company also manufactures lots of other foods you know are not healthy, you may be wise to put it back.

Free-range and Cage-free – these labels are regulated by the USDA, but while most of us picture animals roaming and grazing on acres of green pastures when we see this claim, that’s usually not the case.  Legally, free-range chickens must spend “some time” (even just a few minutes each month) outdoors, and cage-free chickens live un-caged inside barns or warehouses, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. The USDA does not define free-range in terms of beef, pork, or other non-poultry animals, so if you see the label on other products, be aware that it has no standard meaning.

Should you buy it?  Seeing this label alone doesn’t mean much, and probably doesn’t warrant any extra cost.  Better to buy organic (see below).

Hormone-Free or rBGH-Free – This label means that the farmer has chosen not to inject cows with any artificial growth hormones or steroids. The label may also be used on chicken products, however, the USDA prohibits giving hormones to chickens, so the label doesn’t mean much there — all chicken you buy will be hormone-free whether it’s labeled or not.  One more thing to consider: farmers who use this label are not required to be audited by any third party agency.

Should you buy it?  Although research has not supported these claims, hormone treated milk and meat has been suspected of contributing to early puberty in children and increased risk of some cancers.  Research is ongoing, but the good news is that, thanks to consumer demand, many large store brands of milk (including some of the largest like Walmart) are now hormone-free.   Look for the hormone-free or rBGH-free wording on the label to make sure.  This site also has a list of hormone-free dairy brands.

Organic – The organic label is the cream of the crop in terms of the “healthy sounding” food labels.  Organic refers to how farmers grow, raise, and process food – without the use of synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones, chemical food additives, or irradiation.  When raising animals, organic farmers use organic feed, and allow animals to roam.  The USDA organic seal indicates that the product contains at least 95 percent organic content.  In addition, all organic farmers, ranchers, distributers, processors and traders are strictly regulated and regularly audited by the USDA.

While both organically- and conventionally-produced foods are fairly comparable in their nutrient content, organic foods come out ahead because they contain significantly less pesticide residues.  Another major plus is that organic farming practices are designed to benefit the environment.  The downside is that organic foods are expensive to grow and produce, and therefore cost more.  Also, organic fruits and vegetables aren’t treated with waxes or preservatives, and may spoil faster.

Should you buy it?  If you can afford it, and it’s accessible, purchasing organic food is a great step toward protecting the environment.  If cost is an issue or you want to be selective about which produce is better to buy organic, check out this list of The Dirty Dozen– the produce that consistently has the most pesticide residue.   Whether you choose to buy organic or not, it’s important to remember that the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables far outweigh the risk of pesticide exposure.  Eating conventionally-grown produce is definitely better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all, and is an important step toward better health!

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About Anne Danahy, MS, RD, LDN

Anne Danahy, MS, RD, LDN has been a Nutritionist with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates for the past 15 years, and she currently works as the “Virtual Nutritionist." Her professional interests include weight management, heart disease, and women’s nutritional issues. When she isn’t working, you can usually find her in the kitchen testing recipes that are healthy AND delicious.


  1. Dear Anne:

    Just a quick note to thank you for this very balanced story. It is rare to read comments that are as unbiased and science-based as this. This was very well written and contains a lot of good information.

    Thanks again!

    Comment by Gary Chase on August 22, 2012 at 12:04 pm
  2. Nice article Anne! Hope all is well at HVMA. – Hillary

    Comment by Hillary Wright on August 22, 2012 at 1:22 pm
  3. Hi Anne,

    Thanks for the level thoughtful article. I am glad you mentioned the aspect of organic foods about being environmentally sound as to me this is one of the best reasons to eat organic produce. The only thing I would add to your list of Benifits would be overall taste. This might be a more subjective thing which I suspect is why you left it out but because the foods are not “preserved” they tend to be fresher and tastier.

    Comment by Edward Elbers on August 22, 2012 at 2:46 pm
  4. Hi!
    We’ve noticed that organic milk stays good for longer. Definitely the taste is better with organic produce.

    Comment by Abhishek on August 24, 2012 at 6:35 pm
  5. Please note that even organic produce can be waxed and may have chemicals (like sulfites on grapes) applied as well, and this may not be indicated by the seller of the produce.


    Comment by Pat Mischler on September 2, 2012 at 4:10 pm

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