All Natural vs. Organic

How many times do you see the term “all natural” on a food item and automatically think it’s good for you?  I’ve been educating people about food and nutrition for six years now and I still find myself falling for it occasionally.

The term “all natural” is used mainly for marketing purposes.  It is a very misleading term because it makes you think that the product is healthy. You think that the product contains actual food that was grown or raised, not a substance created in a laboratory. You may even think this term is synonymous or similar to the term “organic”. You may assume that if a company makes all natural products, they obviously care about their customer’s health and want to provide nutritious, quality options.
These thoughts are not always accurate.

The term “all natural” is not synonymous with organic. “Organic” is a regulated word used to describe a specific set of food that has undergone particular growing and processing conditions. In addition, the term “all natural” does not necessarily imply that the food is healthy. Peanut butter is a great example of this.

Do you know what’s in your peanut butter? An average jar of peanut butter contains the following ingredients: peanuts, sugar, salt, oil, and preservatives. First, peanut butter should never contain added sugar. Ground peanuts are naturally quite sweet, so adding sugar just feeds our nationwide sugar addiction and diabetes epidemic.

Second, companies put way too much salt in their recipes. Not only does the US suffer from high blood pressure associated with high levels of salt intake, we also have muddled our taste buds such that many foods taste bland without salt.

Third, the type of oil used is usually partially hydrogenated oil, also known as trans fat. If you are a regular to this site, you know our stance on partially hydrogenated oils.

Fourth, peanut butter does not need preservatives if it is to be consumed within a few months; but because companies produce these jars way ahead of time, they are made to last for up to two years. To protect the public from bacterial infections, preservatives and antimicrobials are added to extend the shelf-life and meet regulations.

Now, organic peanut butter is made with peanuts that were grown and processed organically, which is a method regulated by the FDA. Organic peanut butter can still contain sugar and salt, so long as the sugar and salt were grown and processed according to organic regulations. Organic peanut butter can also contain oil, but it typically does not contain partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat).

One pitfall with the term “organic” is that if 97% of the ingredients are organic, the product can be labeled as so. Thus, if the peanuts, sugar, salt, and oil are all organic, the product may be able to contain a small amount of preservative in order to increase the shelf-life. The term “organic” on its own does not necessarily mean healthy nor does it necessarily mean 100% organic or without preservatives. You must look for the USDA seal and the words “100% organic” to be sure that your product is completely organic.

So you see, all natural peanut butter is not the same as organic peanut butter nor is it necessarily healthy. “All natural” implies that the product contains actual food ingredients, but it does not necessarily mean that all the ingredients are naturally occurring food ingredients. The peanut butter may still contain preservatives, non-organically grown peanuts, sugar, salt, and oil. It typically does not contain partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat), but there is no legislation that denies companies from labeling their products as “all natural” because they contain partially hydrogenated oils.

So how do you determine which peanut butter is the healthiest and safest? First, look for the organic seal. Preferably, choose the product that has 100% organic ingredients. Now, look at the ingredients list. You should see only one ingredient: peanuts. There should not be any sugar, salt, or oil added to the product. These items are for taste and consistency, but add unnecessary non-nutritional calories to your food.

This purchasing principle holds true for most foods. Preferably, select products with the USDA organic seal and the words “100% organic” on the packaging. Also, select products that only contain the food you intend to purchase. In other words, if your product has a long ingredients list with words you can’t pronounce (non-food items), put it back on the shelf. As a rule of thumb, choose foods that have a minimal ingredients list. By purchasing such products, you are letting business and the government know what types of products you want available on your grocery store shelves.

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