Nondairy products such as soymilk, rice milk, and nondairy cheese have been regular features in natural foods stores for decades. Because the original market for these foods was rooted in the natural products industry, these foods tend to be labeled as being natural and also organic. You may be wondering exactly what these terms mean and whether they’re important for people who want to live dairy-free.

Natural foods

Unfortunately, no legal definition for the term “natural foods” exists. However, within the natural foods industry, the general understanding is that natural foods are those that are as close to their natural state as possible. That means natural foods are minimally processed, and they contain no artificial colorings, flavorings, synthetic preservatives, and other substances that don’t naturally occur in foods.

In general, you do well by buying natural foods. They tend to contain fewer of the substances that many people eat in excess (sodium, artificial ingredients, refined flour, artery-clogging trans fats, and others). They also tend to contain more dietary fiber and fewer added sweeteners.

Natural foods aren’t always more nutritious, though. Natural candies, cakes, snack chips, and other treats can be just as devoid of nutrition as nonnatural junk foods. Natural nondairy frozen novelties such as ice cream bars and similar desserts contain few nutrients in exchange for the calories. Limit these foods and don’t let them push more nutritious foods from your diet.

Organic foods

“Organic” is a term that for decades was self-defined — and self-regulated — by the natural foods industry, which adhered to high standards for the foods it sold. After much debate (see the nearby sidebar “The war over labeling foods organic,”) companies that grow and process foods can get their products certified as organic through third-party state and private agencies that are accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Here’s what the label and its variations mean:

  • 100 Percent Organic: All ingredients in foods with this label must meet the organic standards.

  • USDA Organic: Products that contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients can use this label. The remaining 5 percent of the ingredients must be approved for use in organic products.

  • Organic ingredients: Products with at least 70 percent organic ingredients can highlight that fact on the ingredient lists on package labels.

So how important is it that your nondairy foods be organic? The practical reality is that most of the specialty products you may want to buy — soymilk, rice milk, almond milk, soy yogurt, nondairy cheeses, and similar products — are already going to be grown and produced according to organic standards. That’s the good news. The bad news is that organic products generally are more expensive.

All else being equal, however, you’re better off eating organic foods because, compared to conventional foods — foods not produced using organic standards. They expose you to fewer environmental contaminants that can potentially raise your risk for health problems.