What Do Food Labels Like Certified Organic, Natural and Non-GMO Mean?

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We’ve all been there: standing in the grocery store aisle facing twenty kinds of crackers (or pasta, or mayo, or cereal), scanning the labels to find the product that not only looks the tastiest, but that best aligns with your values. It can be a daunting task and the truth is, it’s hard to make choices about the foods you buy, especially when you are looking at more than just the price tag. Natural food labels are especially rife with confusing terminology, making your decision that much more complex.

What’s in a Label?

Understanding natural food labels often boils down to dissecting their semantics. On the grocery shelf, there are at least two versions of the word organic. One is straightforward: organic certification as it is defined and enforced by the USDA National Organic Program. The other is the idea of organic, represented by words and phrases that make it hard to see whether a product is authentically organic. Manufacturers know that in our hearts (and our shopping impulses), organic means something that feels un-interfered with, something that possesses the same integrity of the natural processes that produce it. In this unregulated space, organic manifests as claims of purity and healthfulness whose only check or balance is whether a consumer will buy it. While the FDA has strict labeling requirements for all foods sold in the US (whether or not they were produced here) it does not regulate every statement that a given label makes. As long as a label follows FDA guidelines, attempts to capitalize on trends are fair game.

The One and Only Organic

Only certified organic foods have the right to use organic as a stand-alone word on their products. Such foods may display the USDA organic seal and use the term organic throughout their packaging. By the USDA Organic Program’s definition, certified organic foods must be produced without genetic engineering (so they are non-GMO) and grown with practices that “foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity,” without the use of prohibited substances.

All Natural

The FDA has yet to define the word natural as it relates to food. They do, however, note a working assumption around the term, which they take to mean “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” In other words, the EPA considers a food natural as long as its flavor and color have not been altered in a way that significantly changes its natural – as in biological – characteristics. Despite the comforting implications of the word natural, it actually tells us very little about how a food was produced. While saying “natural shredded coconut” makes it sound like that coconut fell off the tree, shredded itself, and blew on a tropical breeze to the shelf where you found it, the most you can expect natural to mean is that no artificial flavors or dyes where added to it. Interestingly, as of May, 2016 the FDA began officially exploring the need for a legal definition of and regulation system for the term natural, but they have yet to provide one.

Non-GMO Project Certified

Somewhere between certified organic and natural is non-GMO. Because no legislation requiring GMO ingredient labeling has passed public vote, non-profits like the Non-GMO Project sprang up to offer an alternative. Similar to the USDA’s Organic Program, Non-GMO Project offers food producer’s third-party certification, evaluating products based on preset standards to determine whether a food can be considered free of GMOs. Unlike the USDA, Non-GMO Project is a non-governmental organization. Non-GMO Project certification tells you that a product was made without genetically engineered ingredients. It does not imply any other attributes of that product, such as what chemicals may have been applied to it during production.

The Takeaway

If you choose a certified organic product, you are choosing a non-GMO product and, depending on what it is, it may or may not also be natural. The bottom line: because organic is a legally defined term, if a product does not display the USDA organic seal, it isn’t truly organic.

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About The Author

Sarah West has worked on small farms and local food systems since 2008, a path that has taken her from pulling weeds on an organic garlic farm in northeastern Oregon to managing a vibrant farmers market in Portland. Along the way she earned an associate's degree in Horticulture and ran her own small farm, where she learned how hard it is to make a living growing organic food. She currently lives at the foothills of the Wallowa Mountains in northeast Oregon, where she and her husband recently bought a plot of land down the road from the garlic farm where it all started.

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