Natural? Organic? What does it all Mean?

You’ve probably seen these terms on food labels, in the news, and on restaurant menus. But what do they really mean? And how important is buying organic or natural foods when it comes to healthy eating and meal planning for diabetes? There’s so much nutrition information out there, it’s easy to get confused. Read on for the full story on natural and organic foods. 

The Skinny on Natural Foods

The term “natural” is used very loosely when it comes to food, most likely because there is not a standard definition for it. Either the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for defining such terms and claims. For example, the FDA has strict definitions that manufacturers must meet in order to claim their products are sugar-free or fat-free.

While a standard definition does not exist, FDA policy does say that the term natural should apply to foods that do not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. Cutting back on these substances may have some benefits; however, it doesn’t mean that foods labeled as natural are always low in calories, fat, and carbohydrates. For example, you might find a box of cookies in the store made with all natural ingredients, but that doesn’t automatically make them a healthy choice .

For Jackie Newgent, author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook, sticking to natural foods means choosing foods that are minimally processed and do not contain added chemicals and artificial ingredients. She also tries to limit nutrient-modified foods like those that have been reduced in fat or contain artificial sweeteners. Interested in trying some of her recipes? This month, we’ve provided some samples from her book:

As you can see, the definition of term “natural” can vary quite a bit and is not strictly regulated by the FDA or USDA the way other claims are. Here are some takeaways to consider when it comes to buying natural foods.


  1. Take the “fresh is best” approach when grocery shopping. Buy mostly whole foods like fresh or minimally processed fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lean meats, nuts and seeds, eggs, and low-fat dairy. These foods are about as natural as it gets! When putting together a meal, try to fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables like spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, asparagus, mushrooms, and cauliflower. Include small portions of lean meats or vegetarian protein as well. And make your carbs count by working in small portions of fresh fruit, starchy vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and beans, while limiting amounts of processed snack foods, sweets, and refined grains.
  2. Remember that natural does not automatically equal healthy, so shop with caution. Instead of looking for foods with the all-natural claim, look first at the nutrition facts label. If you have diabetes, make it a priority to look at the portion size and total carbohydrate. This information can help you decide if a food fits with your meal plan. It’s also important to consider calories, saturated fat, and sodium. Use the nutrition facts label to compare different products.
  3. If you’re looking to cut back on artificial and synthetic ingredients, look at the ingredient list. If the list is long and contains a lot of terms you can’t pronounce, it probably has several artificial or synthetic ingredients in it.
  4. You’ll notice that a lot of our recipes and meal plans call for some nutrient-modified foods such as light mayonnaise, trans-free margarine, sugar substitutes, and reduced-fat cheese. Though these foods have usually gone through some extra processing, they can be very helpful for cutting calories, carbohydrates, and saturated fat in the diet. It is a personal choice, but people with diabetes should feel free to use products like trans-free margarine, light mayo, fat-free yogurt, artificial sweeteners, and other nutrient-modified foods in moderation.
  5. The USDA does define natural meat, poultry, and egg products. These products must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, there are no regulations regarding farm practices used to raise these animals, which is often something that people feel strongly about. The natural label on these products only applies to the processing of meat and egg products.

Going Organic – Worth it or Not?

The term organic also tends to cause confusion. The good news: organic claims on food products are regulated by the USDA. Organic foods must be produced without the use of most conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering. These foods are also produced using methods that promote the conservation of our natural resources like soil and water.

Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. The animals also must be raised in living conditions that encourage their natural behaviors such as the ability to graze on pastures and are fed 100% organic feed. This makes it less likely that these animals will carry disease or create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

Certified organic foods will include the USDA organic seal on the label. You can learn more about the USDA’s National Organic Program on their website.

Many people are under the impression that organic foods are always the healthier option. However, research has generally found that the nutrient value of organic produce and conventionally grown produce is similar. Some packaged organic foods found in the grocery store are still high in calories, saturated fat, and added sugar. So, organic ice cream and organic pretzels are not more nutritious than fresh produce or whole grains just because they wear the organic seal.

You should also consider the cost of buying organic. At times you may find that organic products are the same price as the conventional variety. But often, especially in the produce section of the store, you’ll see that organic items cost significantly more than conventional items. A lot of this extra cost comes from the increased labor needs for organic farming.  

Worried about your exposure to pesticides and chemical fertilizers? The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit that provides an annual list called the “dirty dozen”. The list names 12 fruits and vegetables found to be highest in pesticide residues based on laboratory tests from the USDA. The dirty dozen currently includes: apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries, and potatoes. Other recent research from the EWG indicates that green beans and leafy greens such as kale and collard greens may also be best bought organic.


  1. Consider cost. If organic foods are too pricey for your budget, don’t let that deter you from buying healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables. While conventional produce will contain higher levels of pesticide residues, the amount is still very small, and the nutritional benefits of eating fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of the pesticides. The important thing is to get in those healthy nutrient-rich foods like fresh produce, whole grains, low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds, beans, and lean meats.
  2. More research is needed about the effects of pesticides on humans. If your budget allows for it and you want to cut down on your exposure to pesticides and chemical fertilizers, you can start by buying organic varieties of the foods on the dirty dozen list.
  3. For foods labeled organic, check the nutrition facts label to compare foods and make the best choice. Be sure to check calories, serving size, and carbohydrates. Again, the organic seal does not always indicate the best choice. If you have diabetes make it a priority to choose foods that fit best with your meal plan. Sticking to your plan will help you control your diabetes and also reduce your risk for diabetes complications.

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