Posted tagged ‘organic’

What is “Natural”, anyway? FDA edition

November 19, 2015

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

You frequently see the word “Natural” on food packaging, but what does it mean? Probably not what you think it does. And the FDA has decided it’s time—maybe—to legally define the term, and enforce rules about when food manufacturers can use the word. I agree that words have meanings, and that consumers ought to be able to know what they’re buying. But “Natural” is a slippery term, and more regulations about its use might not clarify much of anything.

Natural, one would think, means “from nature” or “occurring in nature.” But plenty of things you might think of as “unnatural” are very much from nature. Like ionizing radiation, which you’re being bathed in right now (from cosmic rays from above, and radioactive elements from below. Hello, radon!) Or toxins like those made by pufferfish or chrysanthemums (the active ingredient in many lice preparations). Living organisms like vegetables are loaded with toxic compounds including pesticides that are just as harmful as anything man-made.

Pyrethrin - natural!

Pyrethrin – natural!

Likewise, some things you might think of as “natural” are not, in fact, from nature at all. Homeopathy is touted as “natural”, when it in fact relies on a completely magical, imaginary mechanism of action that can’t be observed and isn’t in any way a part of the natural world. Diluting a chemical until it doesn’t exist any more doesn’t make it magically more powerful. Homeopathy is “supernatural”, meaning that it relies on magic, not nature.

The FDA has known that it would be difficult to pin down what’s meant by “natural”, and had previously said it has no interest in formally defining the term. Their current policy is that it’s OK to use the word on foods that don’t have any added color, synthetic substances, or synthetic flavors. Their policy doesn’t consider how a product is made—so synthetic pesticides are OK, as is irradiation, as are genetically modified organisms (GMOs.) Currently, these are all fair to label as “natural”.

Several citizen’s groups have petitioned the FDA to define “natural”, tightening up their policy to exclude more things. The FDA is now soliciting comments from the public on exactly how to do that, and based on the comments I’m reading this isn’t going to be easy. Here are the current top two comments:


“Natural should mean nothing in it but food grown without chemicals…”

That makes no sense. Water is a chemical, manure is loaded with chemicals, and, well, everything is a chemical. I think what this person meant was food grown without pesticides or fertilizers—but, again, plenty of those are natural too, and current regulations for organic farmers include long lists of scary, chemically-sounding compounds that they’re allowed to use because they’re “natural.” Food can’t be grown without chemicals, and life can’t occur without chemicals, and what the chemical names are (or how “scary” they look) have nothing to do with whether they’ll hurt you or not, or now “natural” they might be.


Natural should be an ingredient that has not been boiled, microwaved, or in anyway (sic) tampered by chemical process.”

 Cooking food (boiling, baking, using a George Foreman Grill) is a chemical process—you add heat to facilitate chemical reactions. That liberates more-accessible energy, and often makes food tasty. Humans have been cooking food, in nature, for thousands of years. Does it make any sense that a food is only natural until you cook it, or that cooking makes something un-natural? Really?


The FDA, I’m sure, would like to come up with a definition that’s clear and enforceable, but in common usage the word “natural” isn’t so easily pinned down. It’s reminiscent of the supreme court’s 1964 attempt to define pornography: “I can’t say what natural is, but I know it when I see it”. Meanwhile, food-scare opportunists are making a fortune selling a fear of “un-natural” foods.

Until we come up with a way to define the word “Natural” in a way that we can all understand, I suggest you ignore it on food labels. It doesn’t mean anything—not anything more than any other marketing words, like “fresh” or “delicious”. Buy a variety of foods that your family enjoys eating, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, and cook and eat together as a family. Forget the fear, and ignore the labels.

Organic is still not worth the extra cost

September 27, 2012

The Pediatric Insider

© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD

It may be hard to believe, but I’ve been plugging away at this blog since 2008. That’s 332 posts, and about 300,000 hits. I appreciate every one of you who’s stopped by (your individual thank you letters and boxes of chocolate, I believe, have been held up by postal authorities.) Some of my most popular posts have been about organic foods, chemicals, and food scares. Since I still get many questions about this, I figure it’s time for an organic update.

In 2008, I wrote about organic foods, arguing that their extra cost wasn’t justified by any measurable health benefits. Fruits, veggies, and other minimally-processed foods are very good for you and your children, and on a limited budget I’d rather you buy more of these than a smaller amount of the organic varieties. Has anything new been learned to change anyone’s mind about this?

Probably not. A recent meta-analysis looked at the health benefits of organic foods, and found that nutritionally, they’re essentially identical to conventionally-grown and products. There also doesn’t seem to be a difference in terms of contamination with disease-causing microorganisms. Either kind of produce might make you sick if you’re unlucky and don’t wash and cook your food well.

One demonstrable difference is that conventional foods are more likely to be contaminated with pesticides and other chemicals. However, there’s still no evidence that the levels of these chemicals has adverse health consequences—and organic foods have chemicals, too. Just because organic pesticides are “naturally sourced” doesn’t mean they won’t be toxic if you eat them. Cyanide, rattlesnake venom, and smallpox are all about as natural as they can get. But I wouldn’t want them on my pizza. Also, using chemicals during production doesn’t necessarily mean that chemicals end up in the final product. For instance, rBST-treated dairy cows’ milk is chemically indistinguishable from the milk produced by cows that aren’t given this hormone.

A point in favor of organic products: I agree that animals raised in a less-intensive method are treated with less cruelty. But it’s not always clear that “organic” means “free range” or “bigger cages” or “free to romp around in daylight until they’re killed.”

The regulations regarding labeling of organic products remain complex, with multiple overlapping government and industry associations offering different sorts of assurances. For instance, the commonly-used “USDA Organic” seal from the National Organic Program certifies “95% organic content.” Is 95% organic enough?

I have one beef (ha!) with the organic lobby: their ceaseless and irrational fear of food irradiation. We have the technology to make food safer, less prone to bacterial contamination, and less prone to spoilage. No chemicals, no animal cruelty. Irradiation doesn’t make food radioactive, and doesn’t change the nutritional content or taste one iota. But I suppose it’s “unnatural”, so it’s “ungood”.

Keeping this in perspective: the biggest nutritional issue in the developed world isn’t really the micronutrients, or the chemicals. And it’s not whether Bessie the Cow was treated with hormones. The biggest nutritional concern we ought to be concentrating on is that we’re eating too much food. One of the best ways to reduce calories and improve health is to eat more plants—more fruits, more vegs, and more whole grains. The added expense of organic products makes this more difficult.

If you’ve got unlimited funds, buying organic has no downside. But for the many families who have to choose how to spend their food money, I’m still advising to buy conventional.

Organic infant formula? One brand is a bad idea

August 10, 2008

As reported by the New York Times, parents thinking that Similac Organic Infant Formula is healthier than conventional formulas are in for a surprise. The company that makes it, Ross, decided to use cane sugar as a sweetener. This makes Similac Organic taste sweeter than other infant formulas, and much sweeter than human milk. It’s riskier for a baby’s teeth, and is very likely to lead to over-eating. Worse still, it may help imprint a desire for sweeter foods starting at a very young age.

As discussed in this post, I’m not a proponent of organic foods. They’re more expensive, and I’m not convinced that they’re healthier or better for children. In the case of this particular infant formula, parents are paying about 30% more for a product that’s very likely to be less healthful than non-organic alternatives. You can’t assume that organic = more healthful.

Whither organic food?

July 21, 2008

Masha asked, “What is your opinion on feeding my child ‘Organic Foods’ vs. ‘Non-Organic Foods’? For instance- I started giving my one year old organic milk and my husband wonders what the benefit is?”

In my opinion organic products are not worth the extra cost. I don’t buy them.