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.
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.
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:
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.