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|July 16 - July 22, 2009
Organic vs. natural
The line between natural and organic is becoming
blurred for consumers
by Monica Eng
At first it may seem only right for Dean Foods, the nation’s largest organic dairy producer, to roll out a line of yogurts and milk marketed as “natural.”
But Dean’s recent announcement alarmed advocates of organic food who say the burgeoning market for less expensive “natural” foods reaps billions from consumers while guaranteeing little or nothing in
Certified organic food products are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and produced by farmers and manufacturers under a strict set of rules. But the agency defines the term “natural” only for meat and poultry. In the rest of the food industry, the meaning is largely up to the producer.
Adding to advocates’ concerns, a new study shows wide confusion among American consumers about products aimed at the green market. Many mistakenly believe “natural” is a greener term than “organic.”
“They felt organic was just a fancy way of saying expensive,” said Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the Shelton Group, which conducted the survey and specializes in marketing sustainability to mainstream consumers. “They think ‘natural’ is regulated by the government but that organic isn’t, and of course it’s just the opposite.”
The U.S. natural food market grew by 10 percent to $12.9 billion from 2007 to 2008, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. And in this tough economy, some observers suspect companies will be watching Dean’s new venture to see if they can shed cumbersome and expensive organic standards.
“Our fear is that they are going to blur this line” between organic and natural, said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit organic industry watchdog group. “The concern is they’ll help destroy organics or least chip away a substantial part of it.”
Dean’s new natural dairy line is being launched by its popular Horizon Organic brand and will be cheaper than organic options.
Sara Loveday, the brand’s communications manager, said Horizon has created its own definition for “natural.”
“To us, it means it’s produced without added hormones, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup,” Loveday said.
That’s a good start, said Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for Cornucopia.
“But Dean Foods will not be able to (say) the products are produced without pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and other drugs or genetically modified feed crops, or that the cows are required to graze in pastures rather than being confined to factory farm feedlots,” he said. “These are all factors that truly differentiate organic production from natural/conventional agricultural and livestock production.”
The new products will hit shelves this month with Little Blends, 4-ounce natural yogurts flavored with fruits and vegetables and aimed at toddlers. A second product, 6-ounce boxes of vanilla and chocolate milk called Milk Breakers, will be test-marketed next month in Florida.
Loveday said the new products will feature Horizon Organic’s familiar spotted cow, which has advocates worried about consumer confusion.
“The move feels sneaky,” said Dawn Brighid, spokeswoman for Sustainable Table, a nonprofit online resource for sustainable food.
“The average mom won’t know about the change, and most people are still unclear about the difference between ‘natural’ and ‘organic.’ With milk prices as high as they are, people will be happy to see a lower price point, but I’m afraid they won’t understand what they are getting.”
Marion Nestle, nutrition professor at New York University and author of “What to Eat,” said the new, lower-cost products will undercut Horizon’s organic lines.
But Loveday contends they will help support the operation through a market glut of organic milk.
“The more profitable the overall brand, the better,” said Loveday. “Right now we work with about 485 family farmers and we are dedicated to organic, but innovation is one way to grow your business as a whole and continue to support those farmers.”
When the “natural” label is applied to more processed foods, the picture grows even more complicated. According to market research firm Mintel International, “all natural” was the second-most common claim on food products launched in 2008.
But with few regulations, the term is pliable enough that many brands apply it to products with long lists of ingredients not available to the average home cook.
For Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a good standard for natural ingredients would be “minimally processed,” a stipulation the USDA uses for natural meat and poultry.
“If you have to have a lab in your own kitchen to create the substance, then it should not be considered a minimally processed ingredient,” he said.
By this measure, Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby “all natural” ice cream containing partially hydrogenated soybean oil, soya lecithin and cocoa processed with alkali would not qualify. Neither would a Kashi “all natural” mushroom trio spinach pizza whose dizzying ingredient list includes autolyzed yeast extract, xantham gum and gum arabic. “All natural” Popchips snacks are made with maltodextrin, yeast extract and soy lecithin; Gorton’s lemon pepper grilled fillets contain something called tocopherol as well as guar gum and fructose.
The argument for a “natural” label on the gums, which are used as stabilizers or emulsifiers in processed foods, is that they are derived from natural substances.
Amid such “mixed messages,” food consultant Marcia Schurer advises consumers to be “gatekeepers of their own health.”
“Don’t be fooled by products labeled ‘natural,’ “said Schurer, author of “Fit Delicious” and president of Culinary Connections, a consulting and training firm. “Consumers should... look for ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible.”
Kastel, who also criticizes Dean Foods for recently switching its Silk soy milk from organic to conventional, notes that the Cornucopia Institute is actually a stakeholder in the company, having received a donation of Dean Foods stock at its founding.
“We obviously have an investment in Dean and we have nothing against profits,” he said. “It just makes me mad when I see a company that attempts to profiteer at the expense of these hardworking farmers who have built the organic industry. I fear they are going to blur the lines between natural and organic and I think someone needs to educate the public.”
Organic vs. Natural
The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates certified organic food products, and farmers and manufacturers are inspected by a qualified certifying organization charged with ensuring they follow the rules. In most cases, the producers themselves decide whether a product is “natural.” The USDA sets criteria only for natural meat, and farms are not inspected to ensure compliance.
What is organic?
Meat: Comes from animals whose bodies and food are never treated with pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics or hormones. Animals must have access to exercise and sunlight, and time to graze in pastures rather than feedlots. Feed must be certified organic with no genetic modifications or animal byproducts.
Milk: Same rules as for meat.
Other foods: Produce must be grown on a farm that for at least three years has used no synthetic herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers and has not planted any genetically modified seeds, used fertilizers derived from sewage sludge or treated seeds with irradiation.
Personal care products: “100 percent organic” means a product contains only organically produced ingredients (excluding salt and water). “Organic” means 95 percent organically produced ingredients. Only those categories can bear the USDA’s organic seal.
Products with 70 percent organically produced ingredients can be labeled “made with organic ingredients” but may not use the seal. All products must display the certifier’s name and address.
What is natural?
Meat: Must contain no artificial ingredient or added color and be only minimally processed (no fundamental alterations of the raw product). Label must explain use of the term natural; for example: “no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.”
Some farms hire their own inspectors.
Milk: No regulatory definition.
Other foods: No regulatory definition. A spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration says “the agency does not object to using the term on food labels ‘in a manner that is truthful and not misleading’ and if the product has no added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”
Personal care products: No regulatory definition. An industry group, the Natural Products Association, says products carrying its natural seal derive 95 percent of the ingredients from natural sources. Other rules include: no ingredients with suspected human health risks, no processes that significantly alter the purity/effect of natural ingredients, ingredients from a renewable or plentiful natural source, minimal manufacturing processes.
Sources: USDA, FDA, “What to Eat” by Marion Nestle
— Chicago Tribune/MCT
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