Does “organic” = “natural”?

“The principal goal of organic production is to develop enterprises that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment.” – Canada General Standards Board; Organic Production systems General Principles and Management Standards

I use the term “organic” as a proxy for “natural” when it’s too difficult to figure out whether something is actually “natural” or not. I’m not an expert in organic food production (not even close!) but I did write a paper on it in one undergrad course. From that brief exercise I remember that a) to call a product organic it must be certified by one of these 20 organizations approved by the CFIA and b) the use of additives is much more limited in organic products (references are at the bottom for those who want to learn more).

Let’s look at two of the yummy foods I gorged on last weekend at the Guelph Organic Conference: Mapleton’s organic ice cream and Stickling’s organic breads.

Eating an organic ice cream cone from Mapleton's Dairy in Ontario.

Eating an organic ice cream cone from Mapleton’s Dairy in Ontario.

Mapleton’s organic ice cream is, quite honestly, the highlight of the Organic Conference every year for me. I don’t see this ice cream in grocery stores, and I’m unlikely to dole out what I’m sure it would cost for a carton of organic ice cream anyway (I’m basing this assumption on the fact that Häagen Dazs is $8 a pint, for crying out loud, and they’re not even organic).  So let’s compare the Mapleton’s Organic ingredient list to a typical premium grocery store brand.

  • Häagen Dazs is actually remarkably simple: the vanilla recipe includes just cream, skim milk, sugar, egg yolks, and vanilla extract. Real vanilla extract. Nice.
  • Ben and Jerry’s uses a few more ingredients: cream, skim milk, liquid sugar, water, egg yolks, vanilla extract (again, real!), sugar, guar gum, and Carrageenan. The latter two ingredients are thickeners.
  • Mapleton’s vanilla is cream, raw sugar, eggs, skim milk powder, vanilla, guar gum, locus bean gum (all organic). No distinct advantage to the organic here, unless you count the availability of dandelion flavour – the root is mild and almost chicory- or coffee-like.

Now, you can probably tell from earlier posts that I have somewhat of an obsession with finding whole-grain bread free of preservatives and additives. It’s the quest that started this quest. And I thought I hit the jackpot when I spotted Stickling’s organic bread at the conference. It looks wholesome – it’s got pictures of wheat on the front. And it’s full of 12 different grains. And it has something to do with the Canadian Diabetes Association (the label says “Proud supporter of”.  In hindsight that’s not really an endorsement.)

The front of Stickling's organic bread and bagels packages

Stickling’s organic bread and bagels

I skimmed the ingredients and verified the grains (rye, spelt, etc.), felt the weight of the loaf (pretty heavy) and decided to buy the 12-grain bread and some bagels.

We ate the bagels right away and they were scrumptious; I like how they’re not monster bagels like some of the ones you get at the grocery story. As for the bread, I got it home and left it on the counter for four days while I ate leftovers instead of sandwiches. I froze it and used it for toast. Yet it’s still delightful – chewy, nutty, with a hint of something sweet. It was only today (nearly a week later) that I looked at the ingredients in more depth. Guess what? It’s not whole grain.

I’m a seasoned veteran at label-reading. In fact, I worked a gym for a while teaching people to do just that. And yet I failed – I got “halo”’ed. The aura of all that is good about grains and organics lulled me into the false belief that this bread was indeed the most wholesome of wholesome. In fact, the first ingredient is “wheat flour”, which means “white flour”.

Lesson learned. Just because bread is organic does not mean it doesn’t contain white flour or refined ingredients. This doesn’t seem right to me – isn’t organic the ideal for the environment, animals, and us? Reviewing the Government of Canada’s Organic Production System General Principles and Management Standards, it seems additives could be part of the picture too. Of course, I think you can make perfectly good bread without additives or processing aids, but who actually decides on this stuff?

Processing and Handling

8.3.4 Food additives and processing aids shall only be used to maintain

a. nutritional value;

b. food quality or stability;

c. composition, consistency and appearance, provided that their use does not mislead the consumer concerning the nature, substance and quality of the food; and

i. there is no possibility of producing a similar product without the use of additives or processing aids;

ii. they are not included in amounts greater than the minimum required to achieve the function for which they are permitted.

 What I learned about organic food last weekend can be summed up as:

  • The term “organic” is not a proxy for “natural” (too bad too; that would have made the rest of my job here easy!)
  • Bread doesn’t have to be whole wheat to be organic.

Shucks – if the above turned out to be true, it would have made my work here a whole lot easier.


How about you? Do you specifically look for organic foods when you shop?


  1. […] Finally, cottage cheese: I bought the organic stuff because a) I care about cows and b) it’s usually a shortcut to “more natural”. […]

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