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Non-GMO vs. Organic: Differences Explained

03.09.22

Non-GMO vs. Organic: Differences Explained

In the food industry, labels can be confusing. This is especially true if you’re looking for higher-quality organic foods for your family. Labels such as “certified organic” and “non-GMO” can leave you scratching your head. Is there even a difference? Is organic non-GMO and vice versa?

When considering non-GMO vs. organic foods, yes, there are some key differences. In this guide, we’ll clear up the confusion around the terms so you can make the best choices for yourself and those you love.

All Organic Foods Are Non-GMO, But Not All Non-GMO Foods Are Organic

All of the labels you find on your food or food products mean something different. For example, there’s a difference between natural and organic, Certified Organic and organic, etc.

In the case of non-GMO vs. organic foods, here’s the truth: all Certified Organic foods are required to be non-GMO. However, not all non-GMO labeled foods are Certified Organic. Foods labeled as non-GMO only, without the Certified Organic label, aren’t genetically modified. And they may not be organic. Let’s dive deeper.

The USDA Certified Label Is More Comprehensive Than the Non-GMO Label

The Certified Organic label comes straight from the USDA and is much more comprehensive than any non-GMO label. For foods to be listed as Certified Organic, they must follow many requirements during the product cycle from the soil to the final product.

The USDA has several standards Certified Organic foods must meet, including those for crops, poultry, livestock, and handling.

According to USDA regulations, USDA Certified Organic means the food or food products:

  • Have had no prohibited substances applied to the land it was grown on for a period of 3 years prior to harvest
  • Have not been grown in fields where prohibited pesticides have been used for weed or pest control
  • Have not been produced using genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • Have not been produced by or made from livestock or poultry that have been exposed to hormones to promote growth
  • Have not been produced using artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors

These regulations are only a small sampling of the requirements organic food must meet for the USDA Certified Organic seal of approval. You’ll notice that GMOs are on the list of things that can’t be used in the production of organic foods.

Other “Organic” Labels to Know

It’s important to note the other labels used on foods that you may notice in your grocery store:

  • “Certified 100% Organic”: This certification can be given to products that contain 100% organic ingredients, not including salt and water.
  • “Made With Organic [Ingredient or Food Group]: According to the USDA, this means the food product can contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. These products won’t feature the USDA organic seal.
  • “Natural”: According to the USDA, products labeled as “natural” must undergo minimal processing and contain zero artificial ingredients. Yet, there are no regulations for labeling natural foods without meat or eggs included.

So, What Does the Non-GMO Verified Label Mean?

What does non-GMO mean when it comes to the label? Currently, there are no certification seals set forth by the USDA for non-GMO products. But there are independent seals out there that you may see as you peruse your grocery aisle.

For example, The Non-GMO Project provides verification for non-GMO products through the organization. It’s currently the fastest-growing label in the natural products industry, with 50,000 verified products across 3,000 brands.

According to the Non-GMO Project, if a product features this verification seal, it has been produced without genetic engineering and its ingredients are not derived from any GMOs. The products must also comply with the Non-GMO Project Standard, which includes many provisions for testing and traceability.

In 2022, manufacturers of food products will be required to start labeling their products that contain GMOs, according to a standard set forth by the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. So soon, you may start to see the term “Bioengineered” on some food products, indicating they contain GMOs.

What Are GMOs Anyway?

GMOs are genetically modified organisms. When a food product is made using GMOs, it has had its DNA modified in some way. This occurs inside of a laboratory versus in a natural environment.

According to National Geographic, the first genetically engineered plants were introduced in the mid-1990s. And today, around 90% of corn, soybeans, and sugar beets are GMOs.

Why? According to the FDA, many GMO crops are grown to help farmers prevent crop loss and control weeds. GMOs are used to increase a plant’s resistance to insects and herbicides used when controlling weeds.

Yet, GMOs may not only be found in plants. Animals used for food products such as meat and dairy also eat crops that contain GMOs. And while independent studies have shown that the DNA doesn’t transfer, more research is required to understand the safety of these products.

Organic vs. Non-GMO: Is One Label Better Than the Other?

Some consumers choose to avoid GMO products simply due to the lack of understanding about how they affect the environment and our bodies. And others choose to eat Certified Organic foods to avoid additives and do their part to protect our environment.

Whether one label is better than the other is based on your personal preferences and what you feel is best for your needs. Just remember: foods labeled as non-GMO may not be organic.

If you wish to avoid all unnecessary additives in your food, then selecting USDA-Certified Organic products is perhaps the best choice. This is the only seal or label that requires food to be both organic in nature and made without GMOs.