The Reality of Food Labels: Organic and Non GMO

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The Reality of Organic and Non GMO Food Labels

With the plethora of food label insignias we see at the grocery store, it can be confusing to navigate through the aisles and make an informed choice that aligns to our personal values. Here, we endeavor to cut through the fog of labeling standards and uncover the truth of what it means to be ‘organic’ or ‘non-gmo’ or ‘gluten-free,’ and the ever ambiguous ‘natural.’ Take this two-part article series as a primer into the world of food labeling in our country, and choose wisely.

Not all Organic Labels are the same

The USDA has made it conveniently clear that its organic seal has varying degrees of organic relevance. From, we are told that there are 4 ways to label organic products.

What does it really mean to be certified organic anyways?

Unless specially exempted, to be certified organic a manufacturer or producer must abide by 3 requirements.

  1. Must not be produced with excluded methods, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge
  2. Must be produced per the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List)
  3. Must be overseen by a USDA NOP (National Organic Program) authorized certifying agent

What about GMOs? Well, what are the excluded methods is the real question. Excluded methods include genetic engineering, genetically modified organisms, synthetic biology, cloned animals, and other forms of genetic manipulation. Sounds fairly good, yeah? However, some forms of genetic tinkering are allowed under the organic seal. Marked assisted selection and transduction were deemed acceptable forms of genetic engineering, and some methods are still under research for safety and approval. It’s also good to note that the National List does include numerous synthetic substances that are allowed to be used in the production of organic ingredients (e.g. crop and livestock). This includes plastic mulch, pesticides, insecticides, vaccines, aspirin, oxytocin, carrageenan (another name for MSG), and more. And it’s all certifiably organic. Yikes!


There is not yet a scientific consensus on the risks or concerns with GM (genetically modified) foods. Some studies are funded by biotech companies and demonstrate the safety and efficacy of GMOs, some are independent studies and validate those claims. Other studies showcase the undoubted dangers and uncertain outcomes from GMOs.

According to the Non-GMO Project, the limited amount of commercial crops that are Genetically Modified are processed into myriad food ingredients:

Amino acids, alcohol, aspartame, ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbate, citric acid, sodium citrate, ethanol, flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”), high-fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, lactic acid, maltodextrins, molasses, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sucrose, textured vegetable protein (TVP), xanthan gum, vitamins, vinegar, and yeast products.

Non-GMO is a catchword these days, and verification varies between seals. The Non-GMO Project is the most recognizable food seal, and for a reason. They offer transparency to consumers on standards and a list of all current participants. According to their website, “Testing finished product is not a reliably accurate measure of GMO presence. Therefore, the Non-GMO Project Standard requires testing of individual ingredients or precursors, not finished products.” Unlike the FDA where testing is either not required or only on finished products, the Non-GMO Project tests at specific points along the supply chain to make certain of GMO avoidance.

What is the takeaway from all this? First, know that food labeling in our country is not as straightforward as we may desire. Secondly, there is a lot of leeway and slack in any given seal and nothing is sacred in the world of business. Thirdly, food is a business. Spend your dollars wisely and do some research. Look at the brands you choose and ask yourself why you buy. If you eat a particular food often partly because of the manufacturer’s commitment to organic or non-GMO, see just how responsible they are. In our next article in this series, we examine ‘gluten-free,’ ‘natural,’ ‘grass-fed,’ and more. Stay tuned.

Lakewood Ranch Acupuncture and Wellness is committed to local and global health. Whether you experience Chinese Medicine directly from our compassionate practitioners as our neighbor in Sarasota or Bradenton, visiting Florida from afar, or are reading this from across the world, we are your allies on your path to health! Contact our office today with any questions or to set up your next wellness session! If you like what you are reading, give us a like and follow on our Facebook and Instagram and leave us a comment too.