Organic vs. Non-GMO: Is There a Difference?

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In a world of stiff competition, there have been a lot of classic matchups over the years. Star Trek versus Star Wars, Apple versus Microsoft, the Red Sox versus the Yankees, Betamax versus VHS, and now, organic versus non-GMO foods. But is that last one really a rivalry?

In the arena of healthy eating, organic foods are often confused with non-GMO foods and their differences can lead to some serious kitchen confusion. While these two things have some commonalities, they differ in a lot of ways, too.

Here’s what you need to know about organic and non-GMO, their differences, and how they work together to help you feed your family the healthiest food possible.

The Health Benefits of Organic

All you have to do is take a look around your local Native Sun store to see that the organic food industry is thriving. The reasons for this are safety, but also because there are some serious health benefits to reap from eating organic foods. These benefits include:

  • Grown without the use of pesticides

  • Rich in nutrients

  • Animals raised organically aren’t treated with artificial drugs, growth hormones or antibiotics

  • Free of artificial preservatives, flavorings, and colors

The Benefits of Non-GMO

GMO crops are altered for many reasons. One of the most popular is for plants to produce a toxin that kills pests, according to the Organic Trade Association. That’s a little scary to serve up on your plate. That aside, according to the Non-GMO Project, there are no credible long-term studies that have really answered the question about the safety of foods that have been genetically modified. You can choose to opt your family out of the GMO experiment by choosing non-GMO foods!

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What It All Means

If you want to truly understand what you’re serving on your kitchen table, then you have to understand the basics of these two categories of foods. Here’s a simple breakdown:

  • Organic – When food is organic, that means that all of the ingredients used, including livestock, have not been exposed to irradiation, synthetic substances, or pesticides. Animals that are farmed to produce meat, dairy, and eggs are not given growth hormones or antibiotics. You should note that there are many degrees of “organic” certification, ranging from foods that are 100 percent organic to food products made with specific organic ingredients. But we’ll dive a little deeper into that in a bit.

  • Non-GMO – GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” The definition of what it means to be genetically modified is hotly debated still, but when you see something labeled as non-GMO, it usually means that the genetic makeup of the plants and animals used in the product has not been altered for the purposes of food production. Non-GMO products don’t rely on altering something at the genetic level to bring it to your store shelves.

What They Have in Common

A lot of people use the terms organic and non-GMO interchangeably – which is probably because they definitely have a few things in common. In a broad sense, what qualifies as organic also qualifies as non-GMO because all certified organic foods don’t use GMO products in their production, but non-GMO doesn’t always mean that something is organic. That’s because non-GMO foods may still be produced using pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and artificial preservatives and colorings.

Yes, that can be confusing, but understand that for a food to qualify as non-GMO, it must undergo rigorous testing and various inspections of the entire production process. So, even though you’re not guaranteed an organic product when you buy something labeled as non-GMO, you can rest easy knowing that it’s still been scrutinized to ensure its safety.

Who Decides?

There are specific bodies that determine whether a product can carry the official label of organic or non-GMO.

For organic products, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certifies them through third-party inspectors. The process involves annual audits, residue testing, on-site inspections, and organic system plan reviews in order to be deemed certified organic.

For non-GMO products, a nonprofit named the Non-GMO Project certifies the products. Third party inspectors verify that products are non-GMO through on-site inspections and annual audits of products that are considered “high risk” in the production facility.

Federal and local governments continue to debate the qualification and labeling of both these product categories, but this doesn’t change the fact that verification and certification are done through a consistent process that guarantees high standards.


What to Look For at Your Health Food Store

Understanding the labels will help you to determine if the foods you’re buying adhere to the way you want to feed your family.

For organic foods, look for the USDA label first thing. It’s usually placed prominently on the front of the packaging where you’re most likely to see it. The label must also be present on the information panel where you find the list of ingredients.

There are four groups of organics. They include:

  • 100 Percent Organic – This is the purest form of organic you can find. Each ingredient in the product has to be certified organic in order for it to be included in this group.

  • Organic – This indicates that a product is at least 95 percent organic. The five percent left over that can’t be certified as organic is probably the result of ingredients that aren’t available commercially as organic.

  • Made with Organic – This denotes that a product is made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Up to three ingredients or categories of ingredients can be listed under the label.

  • Specific Ingredient Listing – This group falls under the 70 percent organic category but still have specific ingredients that are organic included

Non-GMO products aren’t regulated by a government body but are licensed by the Non-GMO Project. So, in order to carry the non-GMO seal, the product must adhere to the group’s guidelines. You may also see things labeled as “GMO-free,” but those usually aren’t products that have been sanctioned by the Non-GMO Project. They are the only standard-bearer in the non-GMO world.

The Limits of Non-GMO Labeling

As of right now, the Non-GMO Project only verified processed foods and meats you find in stores. There’s no verification for fresh produce in the store. Luckily, you can buy certified organic produce in order to avoid GMOs in your food.

The world of non-GMOs and organics can be difficult to navigate from time to time. At Native Sun, we believe that knowledge is power and the more knowledge you have about the products you buy, the safer you and your family will be.

Dan Nehring