What’s the difference and what does it mean: natural, organic, non-gmo.

I mean nothing! I am just a butterfly! Stop reading into it!

I mean nothing! I am just a butterfly! Stop reading into it!

The path less traveled has become more and more well-trod as everyone from kitchen soap makers to giant hair care corporations realize they can make a buck by pasting the word “natural”  or its compatriots on every type of product imaginable. Every day it seems a new blog pops up about how to whip up a natural alternative from everything from shampoo (the no ‘poo movement, anyone?) to eyeliner (oh yeah there are website that will sell you a special kind of resin to burn and paint on with a brush), but what makes these things “better” for you?

The WV Style Team is not exempt from the natural movement. Dennise and I pride ourselves on being the extra crunchy version of granola and we’ve slowly corrupted some of our fellow bloggers. We write a great deal about D.I.Y. options and natural skin/hair/nail care for a myriad of reasons. One of the big reasons is we’re all on budgets and we recognize that many of our readers are too. Often times the simple fixes you find in your kitchen can save you a bundle with just a little ingenuity and time. Sometime (humble) bragging rights  play into our motivation. There is nothing cooler than to be able to say, “Oh you like it? Yeah I made it.” But probably the biggest reason we turn time and time again to the things our grandmother’s did out of necessity is the more we know about what companies are putting in the products we put on and in our bodies, the less we care for the lack or regulation and control.

That said in this post I would like to help you make sense of some of the labels out there and what they mean for you and your health when you travel the store isles. Let’s start with the biggies: “natural,” “organic,”  “non-GMO.” These 3 words are peppered on everything from baby carrots to shampoo. What do they mean and how do they help you make informed choices?

Natural: Sorry dear readers, “natural” don’t mean jack. The term natural is completely unregulated by the FDA in regards to cosmetics or body care, and according to their website fda.gov it is only marginally regulated in regards to food.

  “The FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

You can’t get much more vague than that. I think that word plus a picture of some grass, or a meadow of flowers, has done more to deceive the average consumer than the entire air-brushed Playboy magazine catalogue of the last 30 years combined, but, whatever, if you like it that is your call. Just please don’t be fooled into thinking you are doing something healthier for your body, or making a better choice based on that word alone, especially in regards to your cosmetics or skin care. That “natural” product can still be chocked full of parabens, sulfates, artificial fragrance and known allergens, among other things.

Organic: Although the term “organic” is regulated by the USDA it can still leave people somewhat confused. First lets define what exactly organic means. Organic is a term defined by the USDA which strictly regulates the production of an agricultural crop. Organic.org defines it as such, “organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.”

So, although something maybe organic and that is a great place to start, the label itself doesn’t negate the fact that known allergens or carcinogens could in fact be organic. Tobacco can be grown organically, if you smoke it you still up your risk of lung cancer. Poison ivy can be grown organically, if you roll around in it chances are you’ll still get a rash. So be wise. The word organic isn’t a free pass to not read labels or educate yourself about the products you use.

Furthermore, to add additional layers of murk to the organic label the USDA makes previsions for the word “organic” to be used to varying degrees only decipherable by use of your inconveniently located secret decoder ring. If you’d like to know just exactly what the word “organic” really means on your eye cream label you’d better print off this pdf and carry it in your wallet.

Non-GMO: The term “non-GMO” is the new kid on the every growing playground of Confusion-ville. To further muddy the waters, and the safety hopes of consumers, the eye catching label of the Non-GMO Project is a little orange butterfly on a blade of grass. It is cute, it makes you feel better about buying a product, but what does it really mean?

According to the non-profit organization’s website even they recognize that their label, while an extra step of care and assurance for consumers, means very little due to current farming practices,

“Unfortunately, “GMO free” and similar claims are not legally or scientifically defensible due to limitations of testing methodology.  In addition, the risk of contamination to seeds, crops, ingredients and products is too high to reliably claim that a product is “GMO free.” The Project’s claim offers a true statement acknowledging the reality of contamination risk, but assuring the shopper that the product in question is in compliance with the Project’s rigorous standard.”

Mostly you see this label on soy products but it is quickly working its way into body care and supplements , cosmetics won’t be far behind. And unfortunately, unscrupulous manufactures use this label as a way to gain consumer’s trust. Ultimately, charging more for the adorable little butterfly while the consumer gets very little in return except for a false sense of security. It basically means the company manufacturing your product is doing its best to avoid genetically modified organisms. It does not guarantee you the product is produced organically and it doesn’t really assure you that it will not be tainted with GMOs, just that they’re doing their best.

So you see, these three labels, dear reader, barely scratch the surface of the problems in not only the cosmetic industry, but across the board in everything we consume, from our lattes to our vitamins to our skin cream. Don’t misunderstand me, when I buy manufactured cosmetics, food, skin care and body products I actively seek out these labels on the premise that “doing something is better than doing nothing.” But I recognize them for what they are, the thumb in the proverbial dam. I don’t put my hope in them and I know that doing small things like making my own skin care, and  finding ways to clean my body that don’t come out of a plastic bottle, are critical to my good health and yours.

I hope in some small way this blog has helped you find ways to eliminate unnecessary poisons from your life. And I hope that this entry, in particular, will help you educate yourself when it comes to the choices you do make. Ultimately, you vote with your dollar. Everything you buy says something about what you value.

If you have tips or tricks or would like to share a suggestion for navigating the mire of product labels, the comments are always open!

Much love!

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  1. Maggie - April 8, 2014

    I would like to point out that about 90% of corn and soy grown in the US is GMO. Many countries have made planting GMO’s illegal. It has been linked to Chron’s disease and cancer. We might want to take it seriously, especially if you are feeding these products to a developing infant.

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