Not All Labels Are Created Equal: A Consumer Guide to Organic, Non-GMO, and Natural Food Labels
Updated: Dec 24, 2021
Groceries stores are infamous for offering choice. There are dozens of different brands of potato chips, chocolate bars, cereals, and so forth. To entice consumers, producers will label their products with buzzworthy words such as organic, natural, or Non-GMO. We associate these words with some promise of health and assume that products that lack these descriptors must be somehow terrible for us. But let's unpack that belief a little bit. In the following post, I will explain what some of the most frequently cited food labels mean, whether or not they are regulated, and if they are genuinely 'healthy.' As my focus is health, I will disregard prominent and crucial certifications such as Fair Trade and the Rainforest Alliance, but not to worry: those will be covered in a separate post coming soon.
Most likely, all of us have heard of the word 'organic' or bought something labeled as such within the past year because, well, aren't we supposed to? Well, yes, you should buy organic if you can, but it's important to understand why. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic as something produced without GMOs. The product cannot have been grown with synthetic pesticides or fertilizer. To qualify as organic meat, the animal cannot have been raised on antibiotics. The National Organic Program, a third-party certifying agent, manages the certification. Farmers must meet these requirements for three years until they can qualify as organic.
Here is where the story gets a bit more complicated. There are actually three different levels of organic: '100% Organic,' 'Organic,' and 'Made With Organic Ingredients,' and they don't mean the exact same thing. 100% organic products are, as the name implies, purely organic. Every single ingredient within the product is certified organic. Organic, on the other hand, means that at least 95% of the ingredients are organic, but that leaves a pesky 5% that are not. Lastly, 'Made with Organic' means that somewhere between 70-95% of the ingredients are organic, but up to a third of the ingredients might not be. '100% Organic' and 'Organic' products are labeled with the USDA green banner; Made with organic products are not.
An organic farm in Luang Prabang, Laos
So, what makes organic products so-called healthier? They are not more nutritious than conventional products. That’s right. The nutritional profile of an organic apple vs. a non-organic apple is identical. But here is where they are different: in pesticide residue. Organic products are grown without chemicals, and so, there are few chemical residues left behind on the final product. Conventional products, however, retain many of the pesticides that were used to produce them. Contrary to popular belief, washing those products does not get rid of all the chemicals. The most effective way to lower your chemical exposure through food is to eat organic. One recent study found that children on a conventional diet could significantly reduce chemical traces in their urine just by eating organic for one week. So yes, you should eat organic, but not because organic products are lower sugar, lower fat, or lower calorie than conventional products (remember, they're not!). Organic simply means that the product contains fewer chemical residues.
But here’s the catch with organic products; they are not cheap. Organic comes at a price that not everyone can afford. So, if you want to lower your exposure to chemicals without breaking the bank, strategically choose what to buy organically. Every year, the Environmental Working Group publishes two lists, the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen,” which highlight the best and worst products to buy conventionally from a pesticide point of view.
Price of organic apples at Whole Foods
When people refer to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) today, they usually mean crops that have been genetically altered to incorporate some beneficial quality. One widely-used GMO is the Roundup Ready Soybean; these are soybean seeds that have been given a little bit of DNA from a microbe to make them resistant to the herbicide Round-Up. Therefore, farmers can douse their field in Round-Up, kill off all the weeds, and watch as their soybeans flourish.
The benefits of GMOs are that they usually increase yield for farmers; modified crops might be genetically protected from weeds, pests, disease, and even extreme weather. Some foods can even be made more nutritious, such as the case with Golden Rice. Golden rice is a GMO crop that has been fortified with vitamin A to fight deficiencies of this micronutrient in developing nations.
Brown rice vs. GMO modified Golden Rice
So why are so many people opposed to GMOs? The loudest opponents usually claim that they are toxic to human health, but the current research has shown that GMOs are, for the most part, safe or at least not any worse than traditionally bred crops. GMOs can, however, have negative impacts on the environment. They have increased the use of chemical pesticides dramatically and limited the biodiversity of our plants. Imagine that all the corn in the U.S is the exact same breed, a type of corn that is genetically modified to be herbicide-resistant. Some new disease could emerge that wipes out this breed, with no variation left in nature to survive and flourish. We would have no other type of corn to rely on! And that is why people believe that food should be labeled as non-GMO: not because GMOs are unhealthy, but because they can be unsustainable for the environment.
So, in 2010, the Non-GMO Project Label was created for products whose ingredients have not been altered by biotechnology. It is crucial to note; this is not the same thing as organic. All organic products are Non-GMO, but not all Non-GMO products are organic. They might have still been produced with synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.
Non-GMO label at a Whole Foods store. Notice how it is not the same as organic!
That brings us to the word natural, which the USDA defines as:
“A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.”
According to that definition, antibiotic raised livestock can be natural, as can Cheetos and Snapple. What about the FDA, you ask? The FDA has no formal definition for natural and has given up trying, and perhaps, rightly so. As one Vox writer Brad Pumer explains," very little about modern agriculture is "natural," and it's just not a good way of assessing the health or sustainability of our food system…it's a goofy marketing term that says nothing."
Cheetos claiming to be 'nautral' because they lack artificial colors. They are processed, but to what extent? Does it violate the USDA's 'minimally' processed standard?
Natural is perhaps the least meaningful of the food labels discusses here, and yet, often the most impactful. One 2016 survey found that 73% of consumers purchase natural food compared to only 58% who buy organic. As I hope this article has show, it is not enough just to purchase products with any health-related label. You need to know what those claims actually mean. That way, you can eat the food you think you are already eating and not become a victim of false advertising.