As the world of food, beverage, personal care, and fast-moving consumer goods continues to evolve, the demand for Natural, Organic, Sustainable, and Healthy alternatives continues to grow.  Also referred to as N.O.S.H. brands or products, from tradeshows, to the grocery store, to specialty/boutique shopping, farmers markets, pop ups in urban landscapes and even big box stores and Amazon, N.O.S.H. is leading the way with attractive offerings, creative packaging, and young trend-setting consumers. However, let’s dive deeper into this phenomenon to truly understand the current definition and state of Natural, Organic, Sustainable and Healthy.

As defined by Wikipedia – “Natural foods and all natural foods are widely used terms in food labeling and marketing with a variety of definitions, most of which are vague. The term is often assumed to imply foods that are not processed and whose ingredients are all natural products, thus conveying an appeal to nature.”

However, the lack of standards means that the word really means nothing and is often associated with “Greenwashing” (lacking credibility). In some countries, the term "natural" is defined while others, such as the USA, it is not enforced. The FDA does not object to the use of the term “Natural” unless the food contains added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

As defined by Wikipedia – “Organic Food is produced by methods that comply with the standards of organic farming. Standards vary worldwide, but organic farming features practices that cycle resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Organizations regulating organic products may restrict the use of certain pesticides and fertilizers in the farming methods used to produce such products. Organic foods typically are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or synthetic food additives.”

Supply and demand of organic is driven by consumer concerns for health and the environment. Although, the jury is still out on whether science can support the claims that organic food is either safer or healthier to eat than conventional foods.

There are some differences in the makeup/contents of organically and conventionally produced food, however food production, shipping, and storage provides a host of variables that make it hard to affirm superior quality. And taste is a whole other debate and is really a personal choice.

While the discussion around sustainable packaging has been around since the 70’s, the definition and terms have evolved from the original 7Rs – Recycle, Refuse, Reduce, Re-use, Repair, Re-gift, Recover with new focus around a new ‘R’ – ‘RETHINK’. The Sustainability discussion once centered around the environment only, now includes more business and social impacts and sustainable packaging is really only one portion, representing the end-of-life of the product life cycle, that companies and corporations need to focus their efforts on. Other metrics in the product lifecycle include transportation and water/energy use, which have huge impacts on a company’s or product’s footprint.

Focusing for now on packaging, the end-of-life cycle, which many chose as a key metric of how companies and corporations are performing, points us to the definition of Sustainable packaging as defined by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition:

Sustainable packaging...

• Is beneficial, safe, and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle
• Meets market criteria for performance and cost
• Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy
• Optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials
• Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices
• Is made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle
• Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy
• Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles

Ultimately, companies continue to search for sustainable materials, from shifting to plant based materials, ridged containers to pouches, removes excess packaging, PET instead of PVC, creating bulk packs instead of single serve, better recyclability, minimizing waste, etc. Sustainability is a widely used term that seems simple on the surface, yet when put into practice and execution has many complexities to overcome, understand and measure.

While health foods promising fat loss, reduced sugar and fat options have been around for decades, a massive shift has taken place focusing more on the claims highlighted above such as; natural, organic, free-from, special diet, functioning ingredients, etc. Ultimately, what is ‘healthy’ in today’s market is incredibly difficult to define and really comes down to what works for your body and makes you feel good. As consumers we often want to label things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, however study after study has variable results on different foods, ingredients, additives, cooking methods, processing, etc. Eggs are good one week and bad the next, coffee protect our brains from dementia one day the next it causes cancer. Plant based burgers are a healthy alternative to meat and good for the environment, yet they are incredibly high in sodium and still a highly processed food and not considered ‘natural’. Using your own judgment and educating yourself to make mindful choices specific to your dietary needs seems like a logical way forward. Brands are in the business of selling the next best innovation or trend, its up to you if you want to believe the hype.