A simple trip to the grocery store isn’t as simple as it used to be, as there are so many labels and certifications that we need to understand.
Organic and non-GMO are just two of the most common labels you’ll see on food, but what do they mean, and are they actually the same thing?
What’s the difference between organic vs non-GMO? Organic means the ingredients in these products have been grown without the use of synthetic chemicals, and with sustainable farming methods.
Non-GMO or non-genetically modified organism is a food type that has not been genetically engineered or modified in a lab and is naturally grown.
To ensure you’re choosing the right types of foods and the ones that are best for you, it’s worth learning more about these certifications and labels.
We’ll show you the main differences between non-GMO and organic, plus which one matters most when you’re shopping.
What Does Non-GMO Mean?
Non-GMO is a label given to food to indicate that it doesn’t contain any plants, animals, or organisms that have been genetically modified. This means they haven’t been altered in any way, like in a laboratory, aside from how they naturally occur and are grown.
As well as being labeled ‘non-GMO’ on the packaging, your food might also have other labels like ‘non genetically engineered’, ‘not bioengineered’, or something similar.
However, not all non-GMO claims are accurate as they can’t always be verified by a third party, so you need to look for trustworthy certifications.
A non-GMO classification can be on all kinds of products including fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs.
This means the animals supplying the food, whether by meat or milk, have not been fed a diet that consists of any genetically modified foods either.
What Does Organic Mean?
The ‘organic‘ label refers to how food is grown or processed, and it can be applied to all kinds of ingredients like meat, vegetables, fruits, and grains.
These foods have been grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, hormones, antibiotics, and genetically modified organisms.
As well as the growing and harvesting process being organic, the foods should not have anything artificial added to them.
This includes artificial sweeteners, food coloring and flavoring, MSG, and preservatives, making the whole product as natural and clean as possible.
Within the US, foods may be labeled as USDA Organic or Certified Organic, indicating that they have no more than 5% of included ingredients that are non-organic.
There are also lists of permitted ingredients that are allowed in these foods, and some of them include GMOs like cornstarch and soy lecithin, which have been modified to be healthier for the consumer.
Organic foods have become increasingly popular and according to Healthline, people in the US spent more than $56 billion on organic products in 2020.
That number continues to grow annually as people look for ways to eat healthier and tastier foods that are less impactful on the environment.
Can You Have One Without the Other?
One of the most common misconceptions people make about non-GMO and organic foods is that they’re the same thing. While it’s true that you can have a food that is both non-GMO and organic, does being labeled as one mean that it’s also the other?
To be certified as organic, products must not use any genetically engineered or modified organisms, with some minor exceptions.
Farmers that are certified organic must be able to prove that they aren’t using GMOs in the growing and processing of foods, and it’s a highly regulated industry. Thus, any organic foods that are following the guidelines will not have GMOs, so could be classed as non-GMO as well.
On the flip side, simply being a non-GMO food does not mean it is also organic, it only means that it has no genetically modified ingredients in it. these can still use synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers to grow and process them, so they’re not always organic.
If you want a food that is both non-GMO and organic, you’ll need to look for both of these labels or the organic certification at the very least.
Which One Matters Most?
Shopping for foods these days isn’t as easy as it used to be, especially if you’re trying to follow a healthier lifestyle.
If you have to choose between either GMO or organic, it will depend on what your preferences are for the foods you eat and what types of processes you’re happy to contribute to.
As all organic foods are non-GMO by association, choosing organic is the easier approach. This guarantees both requirements have been met, as you can be assured there’s nothing genetically modified in organic foods.
However, if you’re not as concerned about eating organic but want to make sure that your food is grown as nature intended and without modification, choosing the non-GMO labels would be best.
Of course, for the best results, products that are both non-GMO and organic is the way to go. Holding these certifications can make food more expensive, but when you think about the benefits not just for your health, but the planet and farmers who grow them, it’s a worthy investment.
The Different Certifications to Know About
A quick look in the health food aisle will show you how detailed food packaging has become these days. Whether it’s gluten-free, vegan friendly, organic, or non-GMO, learning the labels can be tough.
These are some of the more common ones you’ll see on organic and non-GMO products and what they really mean.
Certified Organic: The Certified Organic label might be placed on products with organic ingredients, but for it to be classed as at least 95% organic, you will need the USDA seal. This is currently the only governing body on organic goods that can be trusted.
USDA Organic: At least 95% of the ingredients in products with this seal are organic, and they are permitted to have 5% or less of the ingredients as non-organic. This could occur because there is no organic option for the remaining ingredients or no way to process them organically.
USDA 100% Organic: Products with the special USDA 100% Organic label and seal are those that have zero chance of being cross-contaminated with non-organic goods. This is the highest level of organic certification possible for those who want to be sure they’re eating only the most natural goods.
Specific Organic Ingredients: At least 70% of the ingredients within this product are organic, and the remaining 30% do not need an organic certification but still don’t need specific methods to produce them. Although it could have a large number of organic ingredients, these products don’t qualify for the USDA seal.
Made With Organic Ingredients: This label usually means that less than 70% of the ingredients within a product are organic. You can find further information by reading the packaging and nutritional information, as most of the organic ingredients will be characterized with an asterisk or other marker. At this level, the product is not able to use the official USDA seal on its packaging.
Non-GMO Project Verified: The Non-GMO Project is the body that verifies these products, and it occurs by testing the ingredients to make sure they are free from GMOs. This verification process occurs annually to ensure the companies meet their standards and there are a number of guidelines that must be followed to keep the verification.
Tips for Shopping Organic and Non-GMO
Making a conscious effort to change the way we eat and shop takes time, and there’s a huge learning curve when you get started. To make it easier to shop for organic products and not spend a fortune doing it, we’ve compiled some tips that’ll help.
Buy in season
The easiest way to cut costs and still ensure you’re eating non-GMO and organic foods is by shopping in season. Make meal plans based on whatever is in season at the moment and take advantage of just how much cheaper it is.
By having a flexible eating plan you’ll get to enjoy all of the best quality, natural foods without breaking the bank.
Take it slow
When you switch to organic and non-GMO foods, there’s no need to go all in and completely change the way you eat from day one.
Start with just one or two items that are regulars on your shopping list and make the commitment to only buy them organic from now on.
Once you get used to that, add two more things to the list, and build up to a full trolley of non-GMO and organic goods gradually.
Understand where organic counts
There are some products where the organic and non-GMO labels are simply placed to hike up the price, and others where it truly matters.
Choosing organic meat, dairy, and fruit is the most important place to start, with the others not being as important when you’re getting started.
Grow your own goods
The best way to ensure you’re eating non-genetically modified foods and those that haven’t been sprayed with synthetic herbicides is to grow them yourself.
Choose some of the easier fruits and vegetables and plant yourself a small garden, then enjoy homegrown produce that you can trust.
Some supermarkets have their own line of organic products that can be a lot cheaper than the brand names, and these only continue to grow in selection.
After checking that they meet organic and non-GMO certification, give some of their products a try and save a lot of money in the process.
Talk to local growers
Some farmers in your local area and at the farmer’s market might not be able to afford the non-GMO and organic certification, but that doesn’t mean they don’t meet the standards.
Make a point of discussing the growing methods with local farmers and you might be surprised at the range of fresh and affordable organically grown goods they have to offer.
Choosing The Best Foods for You
To eat healthily, you don’t always need to choose something organic or non-GMO, but it can help.
The best thing you can do is understand these different certifications and what they mean for the products you choose, so you’re armed with everything you need to make the healthiest decision.
Organic and non-GMO have become buzzwords in recent years, and although they help find products that are aligned with your requirements, there’s a lot more to learn about them.
We’ve answered a few FAQs that can teach you more about what these labels mean.
Is GMO Bad For You?
Not all foods that aren’t non-GMO labeled are bad for you, and some advancements have been made where the genetically modified alternative may be healthier.
Some people prefer to eat only naturally grown ingredients that haven’t been tampered with, so choosing non-GMO would be right for them.
Why Is Organic Food More Expensive?
Organic ingredients are usually created on a smaller scale than the alternative and require more work from the farmers.
To recoup these costs and ensure they still make a reasonable profit, the price for fresh produce and other organically grown ingredients is higher, but many find the quality to be better as well.
What Foods Are OK To Eat Not Organic?
If you’re not able to access organically grown produce for whatever reason, there are some things grown with traditionally fewer pesticides than others.
Eggplant, cabbage, cantaloupe, mangoes, mushrooms, onions, and sweet corns are just a few examples of foods that would be okay to eat if not organic.
Lorraine Pinnix is a passionate nutritionist and loves seeing people living healthy, and fulfilled lives. She believes that food is an essential piece of staying fit and strongly believes in going vegan. PureGrowthOrganic is a passionate work that details her research in helping you go on complete organic diets. She is available for questions, comments, and follow-ups.