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Published March 14, 2012, 11:30 PM

Mathison: Natural does not equal organic

Many of us are reading labels and trying to make healthier choices regarding our food and personal products. When trying to make better choices, it’s important to know what labels mean, and what they don’t.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, INFORUM

Many of us are reading labels and trying to make healthier choices regarding our food and personal products.

When trying to make better choices, it’s important to know what labels mean, and what they don’t. Regardless of whether or not you think organic products are better for you, it’s important to understand the terminology.

Natural refers to products produced or existing in nature, thus not artificial. The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have no specific standard or definitions regarding natural product labeling, except as it applies to added color, synthetic substances and flavors. It certainly is implied that natural means good, wholesome and safe.

While the ingredients themselves are still natural, they could contain trace elements (an average concentration of less than 100 parts per million) of any given substance they may have been exposed to during the growing and production process, such as pesticides and heavy metals.

You might see terms on packages such as “all natural,” “whole foods,” and “nature-derived.” It is a bit strange to see “natural” versions of our favorite processed junk foods. I doubt they are much healthier than previous incarnations. So when you see a food, a lotion or a cosmetic claiming to be natural, it really is up to the manufacturer and is not a term that is enforced.

The USDA has a heavily regulated and enforced system for organic foods, but the FDA does not have a similar organic qualification process for skin care products and cosmetics.

Some manufacturers are applying the USDA guidelines for organic foods to these personal care products. The USDA program indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.

The only way for you as a consumer to determine what’s best for you is to read the ingredient labels. Be aware that natural claims may be a marketing tactic. The term “healthy skepticism” seems to fit this scenario.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.

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