Organic, Sustainable, Natural, Local: What Do They Mean?

These terms have become wildly ambiguous in the food industry. They have been used to label packaging, produce, meat, and dairy; virtually everything that we eat. They often make it seem like the products with these labels are healthier, or a better choice. But is that really true? The FDA doesn’t completely define what a few of these terms mean, so let’s take a look:

Organic, Sustainable, Natural, Local: What Do They Mean?


Organic is one term that is clearly defined by the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM). In that definition it states that organic foods are derived from a process in which the production sustains the soil, ecosystem and people of our planet. Organic agriculture does not use chemicals that have adverse effects, instead it uses farming practices which support and enrich the land and the resulting products.

Organic foods are clearly labeled by the USDA by a seal that says “USDA Certified Organic.” Likewise, many farms from which produce for farmers markets or door-to-door grocery delivery services also bear the USDA Certified Organic seal, although each piece of produce may not be individually labeled. If you are curious about whether specific farms are using organic methods, just ask the farmer!


Sustainable is a level that many farmers strive to reach. According to Merriam Webster, the term sustainable means “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” This means that through the process of harvesting produce, a farm takes care to preserve natural resources so that the farm can sustain a specific level of harvesting and so that its natural resources are not worn-out.

“Sustainable” does not have a legal definition, like organic. Because of this, it is nearly impossible to label a sustainable food, but many farmers would be happy to share with you their strategies for maintaining a sustainable practice.


The terms “Natural” and “All Natural” are perhaps the most ambiguous of all. As of this time there is no legal definition of the term natural in relation to a food product, which largely leaves it up to food companies to label their products and do with this label as they please. Many experts advise that you ignore this label altogether simply because many times there is no truth behind it and it is difficult to prove.

These terms often convey the idea that the foods underneath the label are minimally processed, and/or that they do not contain harmful additives like hormones or food dye. Since all food products come from some natural source, virtually any company could label their product(s) as natural and they wouldn’t technically be lying.


Local food does not have a legal definition either, although it is much easier to define. Most people believe that local food is any food that comes from a certain amount of miles from their home, whether it is 100, 250 or 500 is up to the individual to decide. Many times “local” is defined as those farms who sell directly to the consumer within the region that the food was produced. There are various other methods to enjoy local food, including some farmer’s market stores in which all of the food is from local vendors, or from door-to-door local food delivery services.

If you are ever curious about the foods you are eating, feel free to ask your farmer or a contact person from your farmer’s market, CSA, or grocery delivery service.