What’s the Difference Between Natural and Organic Foods? Don’t Ask Consumers


More than half of U.S. adults conflate the two terms and 36% believe there is no difference at all, suggests a new study.

Photo © iStockphoto.com/thumb

Photo © iStockphoto.com/thumb

Organic and natural may be some of the most prevalent words in any supermarket, but do consumers really know the difference between these two terms? Not exactly, suggests a new study, which found that one third of U.S. adults do not believe there is a difference between the two labels and nearly half of U.S. adults think many organic characteristics also apply to natural foods.

The Organic and Natural Health Association (ONHA; Washington, D.C.) recently shared results from an online study that explored the perceptions consumers have toward both organic and natural foods. The study included a representative sample of 1005 U.S. adult consumers and was conducted by NMI (Natural Marketing Institute, Harleysville, PA) in January 2015.

Beyond discovering that 36% of consumers do not believe there is a difference between natural and organic foods, NMI also found that 46% of consumers believe the U.S. government regulates foods labeled as natural. That’s troublesome considering FDA has not issue a formal regulatory definition of natural, but even where there is an official definition, like with USDA’s National Organic Program, consumers still seem to be confused. According to the study, only 61% of consumers believe the U.S. government regulates foods labeled as organic.


Perceptions of Pesticides and Additives

The study also revealed some other prevalent misconceptions, including the belief that no pesticides are used in natural foods, which was held by 43% of consumers. By contrast, 79% of consumers believe no pesticides are used in organic foods. The widespread tendency to attribute additional benefits to natural labeling can also be seen in the 71% of consumers who believe most vitamins come from natural sources, according to the study.

A similar trend stands out in the way consumers perceive synthetic additives. While 76% of consumers believe organic foods should be at least 95% free of synthetic vitamins, colors, flavors, and preservatives, 63% of consumers believe the same is true of natural foods.

ONHA suggests these statistics should give manufacturers in both the organic and natural spaces reason to continue educating consumers on what the two terms mean.

“The organic industry needs to continually educate the consumer as to the differentiating attributes of organic from natural in order to elevate the status of organic,” says ONHA. “In addition, those manufacturers involved in the natural space may need to further clarify the meaning of natural so that it does not become diluted and lose its value.”

On a separate note, the study also investigated consumer priorities of natural labeling on meat. If meat is labeled as natural, 86% of consumers say it is important that it have no added growth hormones and 72% says it is important that it be antibiotic free. Humane treatment appeared to be a secondary concern, with fewer consumers saying it was important that naturally-labeled meat be humanely-raised (46%), free range (42%), or pasture-raised (39%).


Usage Trends

Aside from revealing organic and natural perception trends, the NMI study also asked consumer about their usage habits. One finding that stood out is that 62% of consumers report using natural foods at least once a week, but only 39% of consumers report using organic foods once a week.

Even among those who are using natural or organic foods, natural users report a higher frequency of usage than organic users. While 36% of natural users consume natural foods at least once a day, only 23% of organic users consume organic foods at least once a day.

Part of the reason for the difference in usage habits may be due to cost. According to the study, 64% of consumers believe natural foods are less expensive than organic foods.  Even a majority of organic users (61%) believe natural foods are less expensive than organic foods.


Read more:

"Natural" and "All Natural" Claims Still Undefined

Non-GMO Riding on Organic’s Coattails?


Michael Crane
Associate Editor
Nutritional Outlook Magazine

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