Understanding The Labels “Organic,” “Natural,” And “Fresh”

With the world veering towards being more health-conscious, a lot of us take the time to read the labels on products. But, of late, most of them have a plethora of stickers ranging from “organic” to “natural.”

Since the labels themselves don’t specify what these words mean, choosing the right kind of both, animal and plant-based products can be difficult. Additionally, the quality control that they must go through before using the label is important to understand, so as to make the right decision for your health. So, we’ve put together all the different things that might fall under the labels on products.


1. Organic


Organic products are grown without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And, all organic products have the USDA (United States Department Of Agriculture) seal on them. This seal has a brown outer circle over a white background. In it, the term, “USDA,” will be in green overlaying a white upper semicircle while the term “organic” will be in white overlaying a green lower half circle.1

According to the USDA, organic products must be produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that make use of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Hence, the soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives are all taken into consideration.


Prohibited products under organic produce include synthetic substances like strychnine and arsenic and antibiotic treatment for animals. On the other hand, pheromones, vaccines for animals, and natural products like pectin and baking soda are allowed under organic categorization.2 There are four different categories of organic labeling as seen in supermarkets. These are

  • 100 percent organic: These products are made up of 100% certified organic ingredients. Additionally, the label must contain information regarding the certifying agent and may include the USDA seal.
  • Organic: Under this category, the product and ingredients must be certified organic, except for what’s permitted by the law. Additionally, any non-organic contents that are permitted by the law must be no more than but no more than 5% of the combined total ingredients. As with the earlier category, an organic seal must have the name of the certifying agent and might have the USDA seal.
  • “Made with” organic ingredients: This category includes products that contain at least 70% of certified organic ingredients. And, although the remaining products don’t need to be organically produced, they shouldn’t be genetically engineered either. Otherwise, there might be non-agricultural (but permitted) products like baking soda in baked goods. However, these products can’t use the organic seal and can’t claim to be fully organic.
  • Specific organic ingredients: In this category, products have less than 70% organic ingredients. They can’t use the organic seal or use the word organic in their display panel. Additionally, the word “organic” can only be used in the ingredients list.

Understanding these categories can help you make the right decision when it comes to organic eating. Always look out for a USDA seal and verify the certifying source. If you’re keen on eating only organic products, you might want to steer clear of products that have 70% or less organic ingredients.3


2. Natural


According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the label “natural” means that there isn’t anything artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of the source) that has been included in or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.

But, “natural” labels are generally used for meat and poultry products. According to the FDA, these products must not contain any artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients.


Additionally, these foods must only be minimally processed, which means that it shouldn’t fundamentally alter the product. Any processing involved must be to separate the item physically such as juicing a fruit or  separating the eggs without any chemicals or unnatural methods.4

Additionally, the label must explain what it means by being natural, such as having no artificial ingredients or being minimally processed. However, roasting and freezing are permitted under this label. It’s important to note that there isn’t a specific USDA approved “natural” label.


Despite the general conditions placed on what qualifies as “natural” by the FDA, it’s important to remember that this term doesn’t mandate how the food is produced or manufactured. Hence, the product could be grown using any pesticides.5

This could also mean that what’s being sold is a product of thermal technologies or irradiation. Products might also falsely use certain nutritional or health benefits. So, if you’re aiming for products used without hormones and pesticides, you might have to use your discretion for “natural” products.6


3. Fresh


The term “fresh” on a label suggests or implies that the food is unprocessed, is in its raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or preservation.

Hence anything that’s kept at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below must be labeled “frozen” and not fresh. Things that are permitted under this label include

  • Addition of approved waxes or coatings
  • Post-harvest use of approved pesticides
  • Application of a mild chlorine wash or acid wash on produce
  • Treatment of raw foods with ionizing radiation

Additionally, if a product is labeled “frozen fresh,” it means that the product was quickly packaged in its fresh stage. It’s important to note that both “fresh” and “frozen” products are screened by the US Food and Drug Administration, but don’t look at the farming procedures. So, your fresh food could easily contain hormones or waxes.7

When it comes to labels, it’s important to keep in mind that it might be best to read the ingredients list irrespective of any claims that have been made. And, if you do find a product that’s falsely advertising a claim, you could reach out to the FDA or consumer forum.