Sustainable Eating with Organic & Non-GMO Foods

We are in a golden age of healthy, eco-friendly food options, so why is it so hard to stick to the right products? Part of the reason is the glut of options. From low-cal and gluten-free to kosher and low-carb, the information overload in the grocery aisles can feel overwhelming.

Two of the most commonly recognized labels — organic and non-GMO — can confuse even the most environmentally-friendly consumer. The two labels often get lumped together even though their meanings are quite different.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of using these terms interchangeably, but that approach is inaccurate. This article will break down the two types of labels so you have a better understanding of the differences.

What Qualifies as Organic?

Experts have struggled for years to come up with a definition for this category of food. Fortunately, the USDA has since narrowed down the qualifications.

The primary distinction for organic food is how it’s handled during production. For example, the raw ingredients must never come into contact with synthetic chemicals, such as certain herbicides and fertilizers. For meat products, the animals themselves must not be exposed to antibiotics or growth hormones.

Organic food must not contain any genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In other words, non-GMO is one of the criteria for organic classification, but the term itself has its own definition.

So how do you know what’s organic? Look for the “USDA Organic” seal on a product to know that it’s been certified.

What Is Non-GMO, and How Can You Identify It?

As noted above, non-GMO is not interchangeable with organic. While non-GMO is part of the criteria for organic classification, something that is non-GMO is not necessarily organic.

GMO generally refers to plants and animals that have been genetically modified in nontraditional ways. While crossbreeding technically results in modifications, it doesn’t fall into the GMO category. So how can you tell the difference?

The Non-GMO Project verifies qualifying food products by way of third-party inspections. Rigorous onsite review, annual audits, organic system plan review, and residue testing help the group say for certain whether food is non-GMO. In fact, certification goes so far as to require that the food not even come in contact with other GMO products (animal feed, for example).

Qualifying food products can display a “Non-GMO Project Verified” label to help consumers quickly identify them.

By understanding organic and non-GMO labels, you can make better food decisions for your family and the planet. When you grasp the food industry’s complex language, you skip all the guesswork. While organic and non-GMO definitions are fairly straightforward, the food industry is always evolving. Refer to USDA and Non-GMO Project guidance to stay up to date, and consult the accompanying infographic for more details on the differences between the two labels.

Infographic provided by PacMoore