The Differences Between 'Organic' and 'Non-GMO'

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Chris Bekermeier

Health /

In the world of “clean eating,” it’s easy to blur the lines from one grouping to the next. You have locally sourced, farm to table, gluten-free, sugar-free, sweetener-free — the list goes on forever.

One of the more common mix-ups is between “organic” and “non-GMO” labeling. While the two share similar principles, they are actually very different groupings. Depending on the specific reasons a person chooses one diet over the other, those differences can be important.

It all comes down to understanding the labels and the nuances that come with them.

Understanding the Terminology

One of the problems with distinguishing between organic and non-GMO is that advocates for both tend to claim the mantle of being “natural.” However, no guidelines currently exist to define what is and isn’t natural. It’s best to steer away from that kind of thinking if you want to fully understand what organic and non-GMO actually mean.

A basic understanding of the two categories will help point you to the label you need. Here’s a simple rundown.

  • Organic. Organic essentially means that all ingredients — including livestock — have not been exposed to chemicals, synthetic substances or irradiation. That includes antibiotics that are normally used in commercial livestock. It’s worth noting that there are varying degrees of “organic” certification, ranging from 100 percent organic to products made with specific organic ingredients. More on that in the labeling section.
  • Non-GMO. GMO stands for genetically modified organism. While the definition of “genetically modified” is still being debated, GMO tends to refer to plants or animals whose genetic makeup has been specifically altered for the purpose of food production. Non-GMO products reflect growing and production methods that do not rely on such methods.

Is There Any Overlap?

Yes, and that can add to the confusion.

Broadly speaking, what qualifies as organic must also qualify as non-GMO, but non-GMO does not have to qualify as organic. That said, to qualify as non-GMO, a product must undergo more rigorous testing and inspections throughout the entire food production process.

Who Makes the Call?

Both organic and non-GMO have specific bodies that determine whether a product can carry that label.

  • Organic. Organic products must be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), but verification is typically done by third-party inspectors. That process involves on-site inspections, annual audits, organic system plan reviews and residue testing.
  • Non-GMO. Non-GMO products are certified by the nonprofit Non-GMO Project. As with organic, verification is completed by third-party inspectors. Annual audits and on-site inspections typically focus on so-called “high-risk” products within the production facility.

Local and federal governing bodies continue to debate both labeling and qualification requirements for these product categories, but certification and verification are consistent across the board.

What Should I Look for in a Label?

Here are a few guidelines for understanding these labels:

  • Organic. You should be able to identify an organic product right away, as the USDA requires it to be placed on the “principal display panel,” or the portion of the package most likely to be seen by the customer. It also must be listed on the information panel, where you find product ingredients listed. The four groups of organic include:
    • 100 Percent Organic. As the label suggests, this is the “purest” form of organic. Every ingredient within the product must be certified as organic.
    • Organic. This label indicates that the product is at least 95 percent organic. The remaining 5% might cover specific ingredients that aren’t commercially available as organic.
    • Made With Organic _____. The minimum limit here is 70% organic ingredients, and up to three ingredients or ingredient categories may be listed under the label.
    • Specific Ingredient Listing. This label covers products that fall under 70% organic but still have specific organic ingredients included.
  • Non-GMO. While this label is not government-issued, it is licensed to the Non-GMO Project. As such, the verification seal is subject to that group’s guidelines. Other groups might use such terms as GMO-free, although Non-GMO Project is the category’s standard-bearer.

Generally, it’s a complex lexicon, but it’s one that food manufacturers in that space understand very well. The label itself will help guide you, but when in doubt, check with the specific food manufacturer to better understand process and labeling behind organic and non-GMO.

Categories: Food & Home, Health
About The Author
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Chris Bekermeier is Vice President of Marketing at PacMoore, a food contract manufacturer that offers food packaging and processing services. Chris received his B.S. in business management from Eastern Illinois University, and his M.B.A. from the University of Chicago.

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