Shopping today requires close reading of labels. If the label says "toxic-free," "natural" or "organic," what exactly does that mean? Are the products really better or is it just marketing?
Let’s start by understanding what "toxic" means. Toxic chemicals are those that have shown to cause harm when inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed by the skin. Some of these chemicals are considered poisons while others just cannot be taken in large amounts.
The Minnesota Department of Health regularly monitors seven “priority” chemicals, which include: lead, formaldehyde, bisphenol A (BPA), cadmium, phthalates, and two flame-retardants called decaBDE and HBCD. They also have a 142-page list of chemicals of high concern on their website.
It is implied that a chemical that is described as non-toxic or toxic-free would not cause adverse health affects. But in reality, there are no specific standards for non-toxic products.
There is no organization that verifies the use of the term “non-toxic” other than the company manufacturing or marketing the product.
Cleaning products and pesticides are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They consider claims such as "non-toxic," "contains all natural ingredients," and other statements about the safety of those products to be false or misleading.(1)
"Natural" and "organic" are two other terms that are frequently used but their meanings are also not so clear.
Natural products, like non-toxic ones, do not have to meet any set standards in order to be deemed natural. Organic products, on the other hand, do have specific criteria they must meet to certify them as organic.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have a definition for a natural product. “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.”(2)
The Natural Ingredients Resource Center says that the FDA also describes natural ingredients as those "ingredients extracted directly from plants or animal products as opposed to being produced synthetically."
The Resource Center goes on to say that the Consumers Union, a non-profit, independent testing organization published by Consumer Reports, confirms that there is no organization testing this claim and that the producer of the product is free to decide when to use the term “natural”.
So seeing the word “natural” on a product may or may not mean the product is better or is free of additives.
Organic products, on the other hand, must follow specific requirements in order to be considered and labeled "organic".
The US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) states, “organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods.” (3)
Help guide.org further explains that food must be grown in safe soil that does not have synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.
Organic livestock must be fed organic feed without antibiotics, growth hormones or other animal products.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) authorizes the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) to set standards on the production, handling and processing of organically grown agricultural products. (4)
You can see that buying something that has been labeled “organic” means that it has met a certain standard. Buying something that is “natural” is open to the interpretation of those who make the product but it is likely to not have used artificial or synthetic substances to make them.
"Toxic-free" conveys a sense of caution, or of danger having been avoided, so tends to capitalize on our fear of contact with something unhealthy.
A toxic-free label sounds the least honest. Saying it is toxic-free does not mean it is a better product to buy.
1. Greenerchoices: Food Safety & Sustainability Center. Consumer Reports. Label search results: non-toxic. Retrieved June 8, 2014.
2. What is the meaning of 'natural' on the label of food? US Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved June 8, 2014.
3. National Organic Program. USDA. United States Department of Agriculture Marketing Service. Retrieved June 8, 2014.
4. Organic Production/Organic Food: Information Access Tool. USDA. United States Department of Agriculture Library. Retrieved June 8, 2014.
5. Organic Foods. Understanding Organic Food Labels, Benefits, and Claims. Helpguide.org. Retrieved June 8, 2014.
6. What are Natural Ingredients? Natural Incredients.org. Retrieved June 8, 2014.
7. Toxic Free Kids Act. Chemicals of High Concern and Priority Chemicals. July 2013. Minnesota Dept of Health. Retrieved June 8, 2014.
Toxic Free Kids Act. Priority Chemicals. November 2012.
Michele is an R.N. freelance writer with a special interest in woman’s healthcare and quality of care issues. Other articles by Michele are at http://contributor.yahoo.com/user/499625/michele_blacksberg.html
Edited by Jody Smith