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Does Non-GMO Mean Organic?

Chipotle’s elimination of GMO ingredients at all of their restaurants illustrates the fact that the issues surrounding genetically modified food sources are in the collective consciousness of consumers now more than ever before. There seems to be a lot of confusion and controversy about what non-GMO means, why we should care, and where the term organic relates to all of this. Does non-GMO mean organic? Why are some products labeled non-GMO but not organic, or vice versa?

I’m not going to get into the debate on whether GMO’s are a miracle of science that can help solve world hunger or the spawn of Satan bent on destroying the world as we know it. There are plenty of studies and “expert” opinions out there that support both sides.

I am mainly interested in how non-GMO relates to organic foods. Living a primal lifestyle, I am constantly trying to procure the cleanest ingredients I can get my hands on. This usually means buying organic whenever possible. Sure, purchasing something also labeled non-GMO feels good, but what does it really mean?

Let’s look at some basics:


GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms. According to the World Helath Organization, any organism in which the DNA has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. In the case of food, genes are altered in order to produce crops cheaper, more effectively, and with more resistance to disease.

Crops at the highest risk for containing GMO’s are:

  • Alfalfa
  • Canola
  • Corn
  • Cotton
  • Papaya
  • Soy
  • Sugar Beets
  • Zucchini
  • Yellow Summer Squash

A seemingly short list at first glance. But take a closer look and you will find that these crops are used everywhere, especially in the production of processed foods.

For example just a few common ingredients known to contain GMO’s include: Amino Acids, Aspartame, Ascorbic Acid, Sodium Ascorbate, Vitamin C, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”), High Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Lactic Acid, Maltodextrins, Molasses, Monosodium Glutamate, Sucrose, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), Xanthan Gum, Vitamins, and Yeast Products.


Non-GMO Label

Opponents of GMO’s claim they present irreparable environmental, health, and social damage to the world. In 2008, the non-GMO Project was started by a group of independent retailers to verify and label products that met their standards. Currently, it is the only third party that can verify non-GMO foods in North America.

In order to receive a non-GMO label, a product has to be certified as containing ingredients with less than 1 percent genetic modification. Apparently current testing methods make it impossible to determine if something is 100% GMO-free.


USDA Organic Labels

Organic refers to produce grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation or animals raised using 100% organic feed and without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones.

The USDA has three levels of organic certification:

  • “100% Organic” – made with 100% organic ingredients, excluding salt and water
  • “Certified Organic” – contains at leat 95% organic ingredients 
  • “Made with organic “ – contains at least 70% organic ingredients.

Only organic or 100% organic products can be labeled with the USDA certified seal.

Occording to the USDA, the use of GMO’s is prohibited in the production of organic products. So this helps makes things pretty clear- if you are buying 100% organic you are buying non-GMO. Even in the case of “organic” and “made with organic products” the remaining 5% – 30% of ingredients must come from  the USDA certified list, which excludes items made with genetic engineering.

However when the label of non-GMO starts to overshadow organic is when things start to get dicey. Just because a product is labeled non-GMO tells you very little about how a product was actually produced, other than it was started from a genetically unaltered seed.

Say for example you walk out of Whole Foods proudly touting your seven dollar bag of Non-GMO Corn chips. Unbeknownst to you, the corn raised to produce those chips could have been blasted with the same pesticides used on the regular old corn going into the three dollar bag of Uncle Tito’s discount tortilla chips.

Does that seem to justify doubling the price tag?

This infographic was created by PacMoore

The Bottom Line

It’s easy to get so caught up in what is considered non-GMO that soon you will find yourself not wanting to eat anything. Make informed decisions when buying food, but don’t just purchase something based on a label that sounds good. While the idea of eating food developed in a science lab is a little off putting, I think ingesting foods produced with nasty pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics could potentially be even worse.

For me it comes down to the message that attracted me to primal living in the first place – keep it simple, keep it clean, and keep it natural. So while the debate rages about how dangerous GMO’s really are, I will continue to simply focus on enjoying foods that were produce as nature intended.

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