The “Natural” Challenge to Organic

By Theresa Marquez, Mission Executive for Organic Valley

In the past year, we have seen a change in the consumer and retailer attitude toward foods labeled as “natural.” According to the 2008 Hartman Group survey, 53% of consumers ranked “natural” as an important label when they are making their purchasing decisions.

This category is certainly not new. The natural foods movement that is now an industry started in the mid-seventies and gained momentum in the early 1980s, propelled by Natural Foods Merchandiser magazine and then the Natural Products Expos, still the largest trade shows for the natural AND organic categories.

Natural foods then, as now, had a loose definition of natural. In 1993, the FDA said simply, “[it] does not object to the use of the term [natural] on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product contains no added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” Some guidelines were written and enforced by retailers or cooperatives, but they, like the FDA statement, centered on what was put into food at the time of processing and had little to do with how the food was grown. The goal of a natural foods manufacturer was to eliminate the preservatives and additives that are so common in foods, such as potassium sorbate, red and yellow dyes, and a book full of additives, many of them giving cancer to rats in laboratories. We had a saying then—we didn’t want to be lab rats!

This is the context in which the organic industry was born—by idealists and purists, out to change the world! We wanted to go beyond “natural,” all the way back to the farm and how the food was grown. In the beginning, there was Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine, but organic as a retail food group was barely a concept and not available except for a few very sad looking veggies and “imperfect” fruit (for which many of us were grateful). For those of us who grew up in the natural foods “movement” it was a small step to become devoted to organic – great food from the ground up, the gold standard, the crème de la crème. In this way, the Organic Lifestyle emerged and evolved.

Enter the 21st century: “Natural” remains a loosely defined category differing depending on region, store and product, while “organic” now has strict, uniform, government-enforced regulations enacted by Congress in 1990. The organic industry, part of the natural foods industry, brought in $24.6 billion in 2008 and was the highest growth category in independent and mass market stores, growing at a much higher rate than natural; that is, until the September 8, 2008 economic collapse when organic growth came to a screeching halt.

Given the higher costs of organic ingredients combined with the slowdown in sales, some manufacturers have begun trading down to natural ingredients of late. Misleading packaging confusing organic with natural has become common, especially given consumer confusion on the differences. I was quite dismayed to find that my favorite corn chips are no longer 100% organic, but “made with organic ingredients.” I wonder how many other consumers noticed this.

The term natural has been criticized as “unregulated, overly manipulated and marketed,” and though there is a movement afoot to develop a specific definition for natural, in 2008 the FDA declined to define the term due to “limited resources,” standing by its vague 1993 statement. In the meantime, a handful of manufacturers use “affidavits,” which are not required to be third-party verified, as justification for their “natural” claim.

Sadly, natural products have nothing to say about the farm side of food. The natural category does not concern itself with building and protecting soil and water or with carbon sequestration; it does not protect our children from poisonous pesticide exposure; in milk production, pasture is not required and a variety of breeding hormones and antibiotics are in common use. Whereas many natural milk brands tout “No rBGH,” this hormone is only one of dozens used in natural production. And of course, natural is not third-party certified, does not require invoice and record audits, nor is there a mandate for continual review and improvement.

To learn more about the differences between natural and organic, check out this comparison chart that Organic Valley created.

While we pay homage to the natural foods industry as a foundation for the organic movement, we must keep in mind that natural is not organic. These natural products often command a premium price, not as expensive as organic but more than conventional. The lower cost is perhaps the reason why organic consumers are trading down, but have they been led to believe that they are buying organic for less? The organic industry definitely has some challenges to face as the recession plows forward.

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