What You Really Need to Know About Non-GMO and Organic Labels

non-gmo, real food, healthy livingAre you being bamboozled by marketing? Purchasing food is an investment in your health and the health of your family. A wise shopper will make it her goal to know all that she can about the food that fills her grocery cart. I recently fell prey to the marketing villain of product LABELING.

Misinformed consumers are paying hefty prices for products with this sometimes unnecessary and incorrect labeling. Until recently, my quest to ascertain the purest form of food available resulted in overspending because of my ignorance.  I can’t believe I fell for the marketing wizardry of labeling. I should have known better. My zeal for stocking my kitchen with Non-GMO foods impaired my, usually, fastidious habit of scrutinizing food labels.

Deconstructing the Non-GMO and Organic Labels

The hottest labels in the health food industry right now are Non-GMO, Non-GMO Project Verified, and organic. They are the designer labels of the food world. Like the fashion industry, food labels are persuasive. The next time you grab a box of crackers adorned with the orange butterfly, you may want to pause before making the purchase. In my effort to avoid GMO foods, I fell into a labeling quagmire that left me dizzy until I unearthed a few facts on labeling. Uncharacteristically, I silenced my label reading radar because I  placed too much trust in the label on the product’s packaging. I let my guard down. My food budget tanked. Lesson learned.

The Non-GMO Label


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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Non-GMO/GE food labeling guidance states that “manufacturers often voluntarily provide information on their labels beyond the information required by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the FD&C Act) or FDA regulations.”

The FDA’s guidance documents takes a hands-off approach to GMO/GE labeling. The agency “does not establish legally enforceable responsibilities. Instead, guidances describe the agency’s current thinking on a topic and should be viewed only as recommendations, unless specific regulatory or statutory requirements are cited.”

If you see a Non-GMO label on your favorite snack food, give a nod to the manufacturer for voluntarily disclosing the information and trust that the label is truthful, “Food manufacturers may voluntarily label their foods with information about whether the foods were not produced using bioengineering, as long as such information is truthful and not misleading.”

Your only recourse is to investigate the Non-GMO claim by contacting the company or download the app Healthy Living hosted by the Environmental Working Group. 

You can scan the product barcode and receive an EWG rating for the product.

Thrive Market

Unnecessary Non-GMO Labeling

I gathered the Non-GMO story on wheat a while ago when I wrote an article on the health benefits of grinding your wheat at home.

The Non-GMO labels that I see on wheat products cause me to roll my eyes, shake my head, and unapologetically mumble to myself right there in the supermarket aisle.  There is no need to label wheat-based cereals, crackers, and cookies as “Non-GMO” and charge more for the product when wheat is a Non-GMO crop.  Unsuspecting consumers believe they are getting a different type of product when in reality they are not.

To feature a Non-GMO label on a box of Shredded wheat cereal is nothing but a marketing ploy because wheat is not a GMO grain in the U.S.

“Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has not deregulated any GE wheat varieties to date, and thus, there are no GE wheat varieties for sale or in commercial production in the United States.”

Health Savvy Action Point #1

What health savvy shoppers need to pay close attention to are the wheat products that may contain traces of corn because corn is a GMO crop in the United States.  If boxed food products take up shelf space in your pantry, become an ingredient sleuth.  Take, for example, the beloved breakfast cereal Cheerios which is “manufactured with whole oats (there are no genetically modified oats available for human consumption); however, the cornstarch and the sugar used to manufacture the cereal may very well be GMO.

Rather than trust a glossy, colorful label adhered to a product, consumers must scrutinize the list of ingredients in a product. Non-GMO labeling does not mean organic; it means that the manufacturer of the food you are about to purchase passed the Non-GMO Verification Project verification process

The Non-GMO Project Verified Label

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An emerging newcomer on the Non-GMO label seen is the notable Non-GMO Project Verified logo, a third party verification, with the orange butterfly resting on a plant.  I admire the mission of the project “committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers and providing verified non-GMO choices.”

The intention of the Non-GMO Project Verified Label is noble. However, the label appears on products “where there are no genetically modified or engineered options on the market.” I searched my pantry and found the prominent Non-GMO Project Verified Label on a can of olives. I would like to think this specific brand of olives made into my cart solely on the bases of its pure ingredients. Doubtful. I can almost guarantee that spotting the Non-GMO Verified Project label swayed my decision.

Some companies are exploiting the label by using it as a marketing ploy.

Non-GMO Verified Project Label Confusion

Just because a product showcases the butterfly label does not necessarily mean that the product is GMO-free.  The Non-GMO Verified Project openly claims, “the risk of contamination to seeds, crops, ingredients, and products is too high to reliably claim that a product is “GMO-Free.” The label does not mean a guarantee that the product is GMO-free:

While the Non-GMO Project Verified seal is not a “GMO free” claim, it is trustworthy, defensible, transparent, and North America’s only independent verification for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance.

However, the Non-GMO Verified Project emblem is one of the only reliable third-party programs in North America. Consumers should use the rigorous verification project as a starting point to secure clean food. The butterfly logo on a product claims that the “Non-GMO Project Verified is the only independent, third-party program that requires ongoing testing of ingredients that are at high risk of being genetically modified.”

Health Savvy Action Point #2

There are only two ways to guarantee the purity of your food. You can grow your food or buy directly from a farmer.  Become a proactive, engaged consumer that holds third-party organizations like the Non-GMO Verified Project to their promised high standard.

USDA Certified Organic Label

Farmers that obtain the USDA Certified Organic Label deserve a huge high five! As a farmer, I know firsthand how utterly tricky and costly it is to maintain an organic farming operation.

If you purchase foods with the USDA Organic Certification, then there is NO need to expect to find the Non-GMO label as well.  The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products.

The USDA makes the different labeling of organic products quite clear:

How to Decipher the Organic Label

“100% Organic” label means:

  • that ALL ingredients are organic, processing of the food used organic materials, the certifying agent is labeled on the product, and 100% organic ingredients are identified and itemized on the container/packaging.

The “Organic” label means:

  • all ingredients must be organic EXCEPT those that appear on the National List, 5% of the ingredients may be conventional, certifying agent is labeled on the product, and organic ingredients are identified and itemized on the container/packaging.

“Made with Organic” means:

  • At least 70 percent of the product must be certified, 0rganic ingredients (excluding salt and water).
    Any remaining agricultural products are not required to be organically produced but must be produced without excluded methods; non-agricultural products must be specifically allowed on the National List, product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.

“Specific Organic Ingredients” means:

This label is a tricky but common label among processed food manufacturers. A muffin mix made with “organic whole wheat and sugar” but the only certified organic ingredient is the wheat.  The rest of the muffin mix contains conventional ingredients.

  • Multi-ingredient products with less than 70 percent certified organic content (excluding salt and water) don’t need to be certified, must not include USDA organic seal anywhere or the word “organic” on a principal display panel, and may only list “organic” ingredients as such.

How to Become an engaged consumer

Deconstructing the labeling for Non-GMO and organic foods is necessary so that you know exactly what you are buying. I have to adhere to a food budget so I do the very best I can with that allotment. When it comes to organic, I use the Dirty Dozen list as strictly as my wallet allows.

I make and grow what I can. What I don’t have time to make, I purchase that food in its purest form.  What I can’t grow on our farm, I try to find a local farmer who can. Right now, a friend grows micro-greens that I just don’t have time to grow.

Start the next time you walk into a store to purchase food

Becoming an informed consumer means knowing what goes on in the fields and factories that produce your food. My best clean food plan for the health savvy foodie is to eat clean, real food whenever possible. Know how to read beyond the labels. Develop your Non-GMO and organic label reading detective skills. Scrutinize the ingredient list on food products that matter to you.

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  1. Elizebeth on April 18, 2018 at 11:42 pm
    Wow thank you for this! It was very informative! It's crazy how sneaky manufacturers are. I wish America would just ban gmos! Elizebeth Gidley Beautyofselah.com
  2. Christa on April 19, 2018 at 12:32 am
    I’m going to save this and really study up more. This is a real eye opening post!
    • Denise Sultenfuss on April 19, 2018 at 8:02 pm
      Christa, glad to know that it inspired you to dig a little deeper.

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