The Differences Between ‘Organic’ and ‘Non-GMO’

December 4, 2017

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


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 categories. 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. Likewise, terminology that refers to “chemicals” is also tricky. What qualifies as a chemical? What about something that is synthetically produced but retains all of the qualities of its natural counterpart? It’s best to steer away from that kind of thinking if you want to fully understand what organic and non-GMO actually mean.


For now, “organic” and “non-GMO” are the closest we can get to accurately labeling these types of food products. 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 commonly 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 (for example, would apples bred to resist disease be considered genetically modified?), GMO tends to refer to animals or plants 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. Sound confusing? It can be, and that’s why the certifying bodies below exist.


Who Makes the Call?


Both organic and non-GMO have specific bodies that determine whether a product can carry that label. Here’s a rough breakdown of who makes the call.


  • 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 annual audits, on-site inspections, 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 qualification and labeling requirements for these product categories, but certification and verification are consistent across the board.


What Should I Look for in a Label?


So, you’ve got a basic understanding of the two categories. Now you have to identify the products on the shelves. Here are a few guidelines for understanding the 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 categories 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 percent might cover specific ingredients that aren’t commercially available as organic.
    • Made With Organic _____. The minimum limit here is 70 percent 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 percent 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.


Overall, it’s a complex lexicon, but it’s one that food manufacturers in that space understand very well. The rules outlined above exist so that consumers don’t have to guess or make uninformed decisions. It’s likely that classification and labeling requirements will grow even more nuanced over time as consumer preferences become more segmented.


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.


Author bio: Chris Bekermeier is Vice President of Marketing at PacMoore, a food contract manufacturer that offers food processing and packaging 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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