Walking down the supermarket aisles can be a confusing experience. You are confronted with all kinds of different labels that can be hard to decipher. You may see labels like organic, or all natural, or local. What do they mean? Here is some explanation that should help.

  1. Local

The term local means just what you would expect – it refers to food that is grown, processed and sold in a particular geographical area, however, there are no guidelines of what that area should be in terms of location or size. The size can vary depending on the density of the population. For example, in a densely populated area, local might refer to food from the same county, but in a more sparsely populated, rural area, it could refer to food from the same state.

It is also unrelated to whether the food is organically grown.

  1. Organic

Foods that have the USDA organic label have been certified by the USDA to be free of such things as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, other types of fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering (GMO).

Livestock certified to be organic eat only organic feed and never receive hormones or antibiotics. However, guidelines used to define organic foods do not cover such things as the size of farms, labor conditions, the economic conditions of farming, or products that are not agricultural in nature.

Only methods approved by the USDA are used to produce food certified organic, methods that protect the environment and biodiversity. The USDA guidelines undergo regular scrutiny by the National Organic Standards Board. Certification agencies inspect and approve every organic farm, packing plant, processor and distributor.

  1. Natural

When people see the word natural, many assume that it means the same as organic, but this is not true: they are different. The term natural when applied to food simply means that the food has undergone very little processing. This means, according to the USDA, that the food has no artificial ingredients or preservatives. But these foods may still contain such things as GMOs, hydrogenated vegetable oils, antibiotics, growth hormones, and other chemicals.

With the exception of meat and poultry, there are no government regulations that cover the definition of natural and what constitutes food that is natural. The USDA does require that meat and poultry labeled natural must be without artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives, and other substances that do not occur naturally in the food.

Because there is no hard and fast definition of the term natural, many consumer groups have brought legal challenges against food companies making the claim. But since there is no government regulation covering natural foods, the term can mean whatever the food producer wants it to.