We have all read, seen, or experienced ourselves that healthy, natural, and organic foods are becoming mainstream in the food world. This category has been exploding for human food, with over 95% of households now buying natural and 68% of households now buying organic (1). In fact, the category (combined) represented nearly $40B in sales in 2010 (2), up from $12B back in 2000.
Natural and organic pet food has experienced even more dramatic growth and now tops $2B in sales in the U.S. alone (3). And over half of pet parents worry if food contains unwanted ingredients (4), which is fuel for even more growth in years ahead.
OK, so natural and organic pet food is growing; meaning a lot of people are buying natural and organic food for their pets. But what constitutes pet food being natural? What is organic pet food? Is there any real difference between the two? And should you care? These are the questions I BEGIN to answer below.
I see several differences in what is “organic” and what is “natural:”
- Organic is about what happens to the ingredients at origin (farm, field) and natural is about what happens after it leaves its place of origin (less processing). Organic provides quality assurance and peace of mind, since it is clearly defined and via standards and regulations and monitored by accredited 3rd party organizations.
- And while natural uses generally healthier ingredients and likely has none of the bad things included, there are no standards nor regulations and when you see the word “natural” on food packaging, it can mean any number of things.
Let’s take a deeper look and start with Natural.
Recently, I read a (seemingly serious) article that defined natural brands as “100% natural, using only natural ingredients from natural sources (5).” So, natural is “natural.”
To me, natural has to do with how the food or ingredient is handled (processed) AFTER it comes in from the field – no artificial flavors, no artificial colors, no artificial sweeteners, no artificial fats or oils, no humectants, free from additives, free from preservatives, and free from growth hormones.
The positive here is that these ingredients and foods don’t have what’s bad, and because of that they have nothing to hide. This is where we get the sense that natural foods are fresh, wholesome, less processed, and in general, better for your pet.
The negative here is that there are few rules or regulations that exist for products using the natural label. So while going natural means pet food and treats have healthier ingredients, no nasty chemicals, no additives, and no preservatives, there are no 3rd parties regulating or monitoring any of this. This is where we get the sense that natural can be as much about marketing hype as any of the good that natural may stand for.
Now let’s look at Organic.
To understand organic and organic pet foods, you should know two key things: (first) that organic refers to a way of growing and processing agricultural foods; organic farmers don’t use toxic pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and organic farmers feed their livestock only organic feed, hay, and pasture, and (second) that organic includes all the positives of natural (no nasty chemicals, additives, preservatives, no artificial flavors, no artificial colors, no artificial sweeteners, no artificial fats or oils) and then some (e.g. no GMOs). And even processing and manufacturing facilities must be USDA certified organic to process and produce organic pet food. And ingredients and products are tested every step of the way.
I think of organic as being “natural plus.” Everything is inspected, tested, and documented by 3rd parties, with your pet’s best interest in mind. So, organic goes beyond natural. Just think – the Organic Center determined that, on average, nutrient levels in organic foods are 25% higher than their conventional (non-organic) equivalents. And a recent study showed that pets eating organic reduce their pesticide intake by as much as 90%!
Back in October, 2002, the U.S. organic standards were instituted by the USDA to make the organic labeling consistent, to clarify different categories of organic foods, and to provide assurance of product integrity. Being certified organic means the product, ingredients, farms, storage facilities, and processing and product plants are all subject to very rigorous requirements of the USDA’s National Organic Program (including initial approval processes, ongoing certifying agencies, regular announced and unannounced 3rd party reviews). This applies to both ingredients and products made/grown in the U.S. and that which is imported from other countries. No marketing hype here. Organic pet food is literally certified to the source, thereby proving real transparency and traceability.
That’s a lot to take in! Do those differences matter to you? Do you prefer to buy organic?
(1) Harris Interactive poll
(2) Source: Nutrition Business Journal
(3) Packaged Facts, 2011
(4) SPINS HH panel data
(5) Natural Foods Merchandiser (Nov, 2011)