Word Distinction: “Organic” and “Natural”, Part II

“Slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last
Just kickin’ down the cobble-stones, lookin’ for fun and feelin’ groovy…”
Simon and Garfunkul, The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)

Here’s a question: Are we moving too fast that the words natural, real, and organic are blurring together?

Credit: Darrow Wertz

Proponents of the Slow Food movement say we are indeed moving too fast and losing enjoyment and health in the process. Many of us gobble cheeseburgers on the fly. More than a few of us scarf down pizza and fried chicken and other fattening fare from fast food joints. We even get antsy if the wait takes more than a few minutes at a drive-through window.

The Slow Food movement is all about slowing down for both our food production and consumption. We should harvest and cook locally grown food, most of which should be produced on small farms and in an agriculturally sustainable fashion, say those who follow the Slow Food philosophy. We should take our time in preparing it and savoring it, as well. The symbol for the international Slow Food movement is a…snail.

As we continue our take on the word distinction between “organic” and “natural,” we turn to Scott Murray, the president of Slow Food San Diego who believes we need to return to our roots when it comes to how we produce our food and how we eat it.

A longtime organic farmer, he says the word distinction between “organic” and “natural” is more straightforward than it sounds. Organic is a label one earns from the federal government for producing food that meets a number of standards, which he describes in the interview below. And natural is being used as a buzz-word by marketers, he says.

The organic and Slow Food movements have much in common, though ardent Slow Food followers are wary of some of organic farming because “when practiced extensively, is similar to conventional monoculture cropping,” according to the international Slow Food website.  The organic food movement is more than a “groovy” feel-good kind of a trend. It’s becoming big business.

For folks like Scott Murray, all of this is a more than a matter of words, though. It’s a cause. Here are his thoughts about the distinctions between these words.

– – –

We see the terms, “organic” and “natural” often when going grocery shopping. Is there a difference?
The term “natural” refers to anything from Earth. It has no real distinction or meaning and is often used to “GreenWash” the ingredients in a product. Several companies, such as Kashi®, who recently switched from organic ingredients, now label their cereal as “natural,” but the products have now been found to contain genetically modified ingredients.

Organic is a term that now has a Federal USDA program and official designation. There is a label with a specific USDA Organic logo.

If a product is labeled organic it must meet specific standards, which include an annual third party inspection and organic certification managed for the USDA.

If you buy organic food, you know that it is not treated with synthetic compounds (fertilizer, pesticides, herbecides), no sewage sludge, no irradiation, and no genetically modified seeds.

There are many other rules that are a part of organic such as annual soil building activities, movement to sustainability of the farms, respect of the habitat and many other features, which are part of each farm’s Organic System Plan.

USDA Organic Logo

Why do some food manufacturers label their food as “natural?” Is that term an accurate description of what we are eating?
The labeling of food products as natural means nothing and is used by most companies as a marketing ploy to attract people to their product.

Can a food product labeled as “natural” actually be unhealthy?
Several recent situations have shown that products now labeled as “natural” contain some ingredients that many people consider unhealthy such as high fructose corn syrup, GMO corn, soy beans, and many different food additives such as dyes and preservatives.

You’ve been involved in organic farming for years. What exactly is that?
Organic farming is on the cutting edge of 27,000 years of farming practices. The organic farmer uses naturally produced compounds that have a more positive impact on the environment.

Organic farmers build their operation on an “Organic System Plan” that aims to make their farms sustainable and continually improving in soil and environmental quality.

The Rodale Research Institute has been running a side-by-side research project for over 30 years. This study shows that the organic farming methods build the soil quality, improve water retention, and improves cost effective production. Over the 30 years the organic production was lower in cost and higher or equal in productivity. The growers made more money and their environmental impact was much lower.

Amapola Ranch, a certified organic farm in Santa Barbara

Can an organic farmer label his or her products both as “organic” and “natural?”
The organic label is highly controlled and those that use it must meet the requirements, anyone can add natural to their label.

We also see the term “real” used often for food, such as “real” fruit juice. Is that an accurate description?
The term “real” is interesting for food products. What is not real?

We all know there’s an obesity problem in America. Does the use of terms such as “natural” and “real” contribute to it?
When these labels are used to induce people to buy and consume products, they more likely contribute to diet that leads to obesity.

Americans currently have a very fractured “Food Literacy” which has contributed to the rapid rise in obesity and diabetes.

We really have a great opportunity to re-educate our population to the importance of diet and it’s direct connection to a person’s health and well being.

– – –

Thank you Scott for your input. Fittingly, it is food for thought. We will continue to explore this word distinction with Jay Porter, a leader in the farm-to-table eating experience.

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