Natural vs. Organic Foods: What's the Difference?


Written by Lauren Page | Published on July 6, 2015
Reviewed by Katherine Kreis, MSN, RN on June 8, 2015

Choosing healthy groceries is difficult in a world full of processed foods and quick meals. When it comes to nutritious food, most consumers think the words natural and organic have the same meaning. Nonetheless, there is a major difference between the two labels that may affect what you purchase.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not defined the term “natural.” Natural foods are not subject to some government regulations and can be processed as long as it is free of synthetic preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, and other artificial additives. However, these foods are considered to contain fewer preservatives and chemical additives than other processed foods but lack a legal way to oversee the resulting product.

The only natural foods that are regulated are meat and poultry, which are required to be “free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and ingredients.” There is difficulty determining the amount of natural ingredients because processing means that the food is no longer the product of the earth. While the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires products list their ingredients in descending order of concentration, no official specification exists for the amount of natural ingredients a food must contain. So what does all this mean? Basically, even though that jar of peanut butter boasts natural doesn’t mean every ingredient is process-free.

Organic foods have been heavily regulated by the USDA and the National Organic Program (NOP) since 2002. The NOP creates laws regulating the creation, production, handling, labeling, trade, and enforcement of all USDA organic products. Organic also refers to the way food is produced, from farm to table, helping to preserve natural resources and biodiversity. Organic farmers, ranchers, and food processors are subject to announced and unannounced 3rd party inspections.

The organic label ensures that no toxic synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or chemical NPK fertilizers are used in crop production. Organic livestock must meet strict health and welfare standards by not using antibiotics or growth hormones, use 100% organic feed, and animals are provided with outdoor access. Organic multi-ingredient foods must have 95% or more certified organic content to earn the USDA organic seal.

The cost of processed foods is less expensive than natural by an average of 15 cents. On the other hand, because of all the government regulations and the costs, organic food is marked up in price. A $2.50 jar of natural peanut butter is around $5 for the organic version but it doesn’t have to break the bank.

Here are some tips to help make buying organic easy and affordable.

  • Buy in bulk and shop for foods while in season if possible.
  • Private labels are introducing more organic foods at reasonable prices.
  • Customer loyalty programs and coupons can make a huge difference while shopping.
  • Explore farm stands and farmers markets or join a community supported agriculture groups.
  • Make a shopping list and stick to it.
  • Cook at home.
  • Join a buying club.

Also, make sure to read the food labels. If you can’t pronounce the ingredient, there’s a good chance the item is processed. Any of these tips could lessen the blow to your wallet but the most important tip would be to cook at home to save money and possibly your waistline. A week’s lunch could be two weeks’ worth of healthy, organic snacks.


The Difference Between Natural Foods and Organic Foods." FitDay. Internet Brands, Inc. Web. 6 July 2015.
Agricultural Marketing Service - Home." Organic It's Worth It. Web. 6 July 2015.
Organic Agriculture." U.S. Department of Agriculture. 9 Jan. 2015. Web. 6 July 2015.
Post, Ph.D., Robert C. "Labeling and Consumer Protection." Natural and Organic Claims. FSIS, 8 Mar. 1999. Web. 6 July 2015.