The natural foods industry has always been based on the idea of pure, unadulterated whole food, so it isn't surprising that there's a big movement afoot among natural food shoppers to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs are made when genetic engineers insert genes from one living thing (say, a bacteria) into the DNA of a completely unrelated living thing (say, corn)-a process that is anything but "natural."
Many people who shun GMOs know that the two best ways to avoid them are to buy products labeled either USDA Organic or Non-GMO Project Verified. However, some shoppers get confused about the difference between the two. To make the best decisions for you and your family, it's important to understand what the two labels really mean. Here's a rundown.
Non-GMO Project Verified
The Non GMO Project Verified label is the fastest-growing label claim in the natural foods industry. In order to earn this distinction, products undergo a rigorous review process by the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization that operates North America's only third party verification program for GMO avoidance.
The program includes testing at-risk ingredients on an ongoing basis, including alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, yellow squash, and zucchini. Animal products, such as milk, meat, eggs, and honey, are also tested.
It's important to remember that this program focuses solely on GMO avoidance. In other words, a product can earn a Non-GMO Project Verified seal, but still contain ingredients that are grown with commercial herbicides and chemical fertilizers-substances that many natural food shoppers prefer to avoid.
Organic Trade Association surveys show that 22 percent of consumers now cite avoiding GMOs as a primary reason to eat organic food. That's because the use of GMOs is prohibited under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program. To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show that they aren't using GMOs, and also that they are protecting their products from contact with GMOs through a variety of methods.
However, organic certification does not require testing for GMOs. Given the widespread use of GMOs-not to mention the fact that some GM crops such as corn are notorious for spreading through wind drift and contaminating other fields-some shoppers prefer the extra insurance of GMO testing and opt for the Non-GMO Project Verified label for that reason.
But there are many more reasons to buy USDA Organic food than just avoiding GMOs. Many consumers want to support this environmentally beneficial food production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. Others want to avoid substances that are excluded from organic farming, including irradiation, sewage sludge, antibiotics, growth hormones, and synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, many of which have been linked to health problems, including neurological and endocrine system disorders, and cancer.
Still another good reason to purchase organic foods is because they're more nutritious. Reviews of multiple studies show that organic foods provide significantly greater levels of vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus than non-organic varieties of the same foods. They also tend to provide greater levels of health-supporting antioxidant phytochemicals, such as flavonoids. And a 2013 study found that organically produced milk has a more beneficial fatty acid composition, which is helpful for promoting reduced inflammation in the body.
Making an Educated Choice
Non-GMO Verified products generally cost less than certified organic foods, so if you're on a budget, buy non-GMO, especially for products that contain risky ingredients such as corn and soy. But if you can afford it, and want to avoid undesirable practices in conventional agriculture as well as GMOs, buy organic.
Really, though, it doesn't have to be an either-or decision. It can be both. More than half of the Non-GMO Project's verified products are also certified organic. So, if you want the extra protection of both programs for GMO avoidance, if you want the food that you purchase to have been tested for GMOs, and if you also want to use your dollars to support the many benefits of organic agriculture, seek out products that carry both designations. The two seals together are the current gold standard for nutritious, unadulterated, pure food as nature intended.
Melissa Diane Smith is a nationally known writer and holistic nutritionist who counsels clients across the country and specializes in using food as medicine for a wide variety of conditions. She is the author of Going Against the Grain and Gluten Free Throughout the Year, coauthor of Syndrome X, and a non-GMO educator and speaker. To learn more about her books, long-distance consultations, nutrition coaching programs, or speaking, visit her websites melissadianesmith.com and againstthegrainnutrition.com.
Did You Know?
If you see the USDA organic seal, the product is certified organic and has 95 percent or more organic content.
Resources for More Information
Center for Food Safety
CenterforFoodSafety.org. (Download their True Food Shopper's Guide, or get their mobile app for iPhones and Androids.)
Non-GMO Shopping Guide
NonGMOShoppingGuide.com. (Download the guide or get the app for iPhones.)
NonGMOProject.org. (Search their up-to-date list of verified products.)
Organic Consumers Association
OrganicConsumers.org. (Search for tips for buying organic on a budget.)
Environmental Working Group
Ewg.org/foodnews. (Enter your email address to download the Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce or get the app for your smart phone.)