Natural, Organic, and Synthetic
“O you who have believed, eat from the good things which We have provided for you and be grateful to Allah [God] if it is [indeed] Him that you worship.” (Quran 2:172) Our religion instructs us to seek out the best and most wholesome food to eat. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), good food meant any food that was halal and purchased through honest means. God also says in the Quran, “O messengers, eat from the good foods and work righteousness. Indeed, I, of what you do, am Knowing.” (Quran: 23:51) In modern times, we have an amazing selection of food and health choices that people centuries ago couldn’t have imagined.
Advances in chemistry and biology have enabled us to have an abundant supply of food and other consumables at our grocery stores. But with these new scientific processes come concerns about food integrity and modern-day consumption. Reading the back of any ingredient labels on our products would lead anyone to be confused. In response to these concerns, corporations have labeled their items with such words as “organic,” “natural,” “synthetic,” or “artificial.” But what are the main differences among these labels and most importantly, what are the health benefits (and detriments) to each one?
To clear the air on product labeling, we should look to the ones responsible for creating and defining those labels. Two major government agencies are responsible for labeling all products; the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Both organizations overlap in some regard, but their primary responsibilities are making sure that our consumables, such as food, drugs, and cosmetics, are safe and labeled properly. We will derive our definitions for natural, organic, and synthetic from these two groups.
According to the USDA, for a product to be labeled as “natural,” it must contain no artificial ingredients or added colors and must be only minimally processed. It’s the words “minimally processed” where we must pay attention, as there is no certification process that determines what has been minimally processed. Furthermore, natural does not mean free from chemicals. Products labeled natural may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, or other comparable chemicals. Kent Messer, a behavioral economist with a specialty in agriculture and food, and director at the Center for Experimental & Applied Economics says, “The definition for natural tends to be much looser than that of organic, especially the phrase ‘minimally processed,’ and generally does not require certification.” Producers do have to submit a report to the USDA detailing the life and slaughter of an animal, but no inspections are conducted. As for cosmetics, “There is no real definition of ‘natural’ in the U.S. beauty industry,” says cosmetic chemist Ginger King. “As long as the bulk of your material is natural, you can say ‘naturally-based.’ There is no regulation.”
The requirements for organic labeling are much stricter. According to the USDA, “Foods labeled ‘organic’ must consist of at least ninety-five percent organically produced ingredients and the other five percent must be approved on the national list provided by the USDA. They cannot be produced with any antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, petroleum or sewage-sludge based fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Each organic ingredient must be identified along with the name of the certifying agency.” Because the process for regulating organic labels is more thorough, foods labeled organic are much more likely to be organic. Applications must detail the substance history of the past three years of operation, plans of practice for the substance use, and the products to be grown, raised, and produced. They must also keep records for five years after certification and make said records available to the National Organic Program (NOP), a division of the USDA which handles organic production. But the organic label is only related to food, as cosmetics are created primarily by synthetic processes of natural materials.
The simplest definition for synthetic is that it is a chemical made by human methods. The chemical structures may or may not be found in nature and synthetic chemicals can be made from natural products. For example, ascorbic acid, better known as vitamin C, is found naturally in oranges but it can also be produced from glucose. Because synthetic products can be made from natural products, a product may sometimes be labeled as “naturally derived.” In the food industry, the word “artificial” is used in place of “synthetic.” Another example would be a cereal or candy bar, often labeled with “artificial flavoring.”
So which option is healthier and most importantly, which one fits the standards for halal consumption. We live in an eco-conscious society where more and more people are concerned about how consumer industries are impacting our environment. And it’s quite easy to be pulled in by items touting themselves as natural, ecofriendly, or green. But are they really any better, healthier, or friendlier to the environment, than products made through synthetic means? The answers may surprise you. Dr. Dorea Reeser, environmental chemistry professor at the University of Toronto says, “Unfortunately, the natural versus synthetic debate falls very much in the gray region, and each chemical, or class of chemicals, must be considered on a case by case basis.” Despite the latest hype around natural products, they are not necessarily better than synthetic products. As Dr. Reeser states, “Have you ever heard of malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, botulism, or tetanus? Why, then, are so many convinced that anything and everything natural is healthier for us than synthetic products? It’s true that modern chemistry has brought us several toxic chemicals, like DDT and dioxins, but do you really think that nature’s chemicals are any less harmful to you? In fact, the most toxic chemicals to humans are completely natural.” This point is summed up well by researchers from the University of Cambridge who studied natural and synthetic chemicals in the human diet in 2001 and wrote, “Among the agents identified as human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research in Cancer, sixty-two percent occur naturally: sixteen are natural chemicals, eleven are mixtures of natural chemicals, and ten are infectious agents. Thus, the idea that a chemical is safe because it is natural, is not correct.” There are more harmful natural carcinogens than harmful synthetic carcinogens.
For scientists, the debate on whether organic foods are healthier than conventional farmed foods continues. However, for halal consumers looking for halal and ecofriendly options, organic food can offer some benefits. Mainly, this is because organic farming for fruits and vegetables involves less pesticide use than found in conventional farming. Because organic farming has more restrictions and uses smaller farming space, some Muslims consider this method of farming as kinder and gentler to the earth’s ecosystem. Also, because organic farmers do not use antibiotics for meat production, people who eat organic meat are less likely to develop antibiotic resistance. Organic meat and dairy must not contain synthetic hormones, which have been linked to an increased risk of cancer. Organic meat and dairy have more omega-3 fatty acids, a healthy unsaturated fat. But if you’re looking to increase your omega 3 fatty acid intake, make sure you choose grass-fed, free-range organic meat. Scientists say that the free-range, grass-fed diet contributes to more omega-3 fatty acid production. Consumers say organic grass-fed meat tastes better, and is a leaner, healthier meat because a grass-fed diet is the most natural diet for livestock. Not all organic meat is grass-fed but there is a lot of overlap. To make the decision for you and your family, read those labels and choose accordingly.
When you see “clean” and “green” cosmetics and cleaning products, it usually means that the ingredients were ethically sourced and naturally derived. Some synthetic processing has taken place to create the product, but the product is safe, non-toxic, and biodegradable. These products are usually packaged in recycled or recyclable packing. Cruelty-free labeling may also be helpful for halal consumers, but since it has no legal definition, it may not mean what the buyer thinks it means. God says in the Quran, “And the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth easily…” (Quran 25:63) Buying ecofriendly and organic products can decrease our carbon footprint, making the verse into a literal encouragement to be kind to the environment.
Not all organic products are healthier than non-organic products. Each must be judged individually. A candy bar that is organic or with “naturally-derived ingredients” will still have the same amount of sugar and calories as a regular candy bar. The same goes with most cereals, potato chips, and other snacks. While a snack may be ethically sourced, make sure to read the nutrition label to check for its health content. Organic and eco-friendly alternatives tend to be more expensive than conventional consumables. So, if you’re on a limited budget, try to spend your money on organic essentials, like meat, dairy, or vegetables, and purchase safe artificial products for the non-essentials.
Kelly Crosby is an artist and writer in Atlanta, Georgia. You can find her work at www.wagingbeauty.com