Food labels 101: Do you really know what you’re eating? Certified organic and natural – what’s the difference?

With so many people trying to improve their eating habits, the good news is that there are a lot more healthy options on store shelves than ever before. But the dizzying array of products makes it hard to know what the best choices truly are. Have you ever stared at the products on a store shelf and wondered what all the labels meant? How do you know which ones you should feed your family?

Two prevalent labels that seem to be especially confusing are “natural” and “organic.” If you have been wondering what these two terms mean and what the difference is between them, here’s a hint: one is strictly regulated, while the other can mean just about anything. Which is which?

If a product has the organic seal, it means that it is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and must meet strict government standards which control how such foods are grown, handled and processed. To be certified organic, the food must be grown without toxic synthetic pesticides and herbicides, genetically engineered ingredients (also called GMOs), antibiotics or artificial growth hormones. That means when you and your family are eating organic foods, you are not putting any of those things into your bodies. Organic farming helps by not adding chemicals to the air, water and soil, as well as keeping it away from you, your family and future generations. Some studies have shown that organic farming also helps produce more nutrient-dense crops.

When it comes to products labeled as “natural,” there is no strictly defined or regulated definition. It may mean that it has minimally processed ingredients, no preservatives or additives, or it may mean none of these things. Natural products do not have to abide by any standards, so they may contain heavily processed ingredients, toxic chemicals and GMOs. If you and your family are eating natural products, you don’t really know exactly what you are putting into your bodies.

“Despite what many people think, organic and natural are not interchangeable. When you eat something marketed as ‘natural’ you may think you are doing something good for your body, and you could be, but the reality is that it’s more likely you are consuming toxins and GMOs which wouldn’t be allowed under the organic certification. Our bodies are meant to use food for energy – they get confused, irritated and harmed when presented with food and chemicals. To put it simply, organic is food, the best fuel for any body,” says Registered Dietician Ashley Koff, author of “Mom Energy: A Simple Plan to Live Fully Charged.”

If you’d like to eat more organic foods, it is easy to take the first step:

* A good place to start is with the foods that you consume every day. For instance, if you and your family start off each morning with a bowl of cereal, try eating organic cereal instead, like Nature’s Path (, which has an extensive line of cereals (as well as waffles, granola, oatmeal and granola bars) that are all USDA certified organic.

* To learn more about organic food, go to the websites of The Mayo Clinic, The Rodale Institute or The Organic Center.

There are a lot of confusing choices out there, but with a little knowledge about the difference between the certified organic and natural labels (check out the chart at, you can find peace-of-mind that you are making the best choices for your family. For the best assurance that you are not consuming toxins and chemicals along with your food, look for the USDA certified organic seal on the products you buy.