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GMO free vs Organic: What’s the Difference and Why Should You Care?

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GMO free vs Organic

The issues behind food labels, particularly GMO-free food labels and organic food labels, are incredibly alarming and fraught with politics. Add in a dose of marketing hype and very little consensus about their dangers, and you can’t help but feel confused and overwhelmed.

Cripes! You just want to know what to feed your family!

Let’s break this down so you can make healthier food choices and avoid meaningless non-GMO claims and misleading organic labels.


Ok, so what exactly are GMO’s?

GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. What that means is, scientists literally alter the DNA in food so that crops are more tolerant, produce their own toxic insecticides, and/or exhibit more desirable traits.


Well then, what does organic mean?

To be considered organic, the USDA mandates that crops are grown without the use of chemical or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Livestock must have outdoor access and have been given no antibiotics or growth hormones. In order to merit that label, crops must also be GMO-free. So an organic label is an umbrella that covers GMOs too.


How do you tell if something is truly organic or GMO-free?

The quickest way to tell is to look for the USDA organic label and the Non-GMO Project butterfly label. These are the two most trusted government and third-party regulation agencies, respectively. While the government has strict regulations about organic claims, GMOs are still largely unregulated, so it’s important to be leary. And the butterfly label is one of the only GMO-free food labels that require growers to maintain rigid standards, but there are plenty of other labels out there making the same claims. Non-GMO claims and organic food labels misleading consumers is a problem you can avoid with just a quick glance.


So, the big question is, should you be worried about them?

The short answer is, we don’t know yet. GMOs are a rather modern development, so no long-term studies have been done to show their effects. At this time, the government considers them “safe.” The effects to the environment, however, are much clearer. We know that GMOs have led to the development of superweeds and that they disrupt natural biospheres.

Similarly, even the amount of conventional pesticide residue left on non-organic food is considered “safe.” While that may leave you with a raised eyebrow, the positive effects of fruits and vegetables, organic or not, in your diet are unmistakable. And thankfully the presence of pesticides has declined since 1996 when the Food Quality Protection Act was passed.

Most of the data about the effects of pesticides on humans has come from studying farmers who have had first-hand chemical exposure on a regular basis. Certain pesticide chemicals are known to be carcinogenic or endocrine-disruptive.


Ok so, given this knowledge, what should you do?

Although your food choices are ultimately yours to make, and the jury is still out about long-term health effects, we have some tips to help you avoid GMOs and pesticides.

  1. Opt for organic whenever possible: especially the Dirty Dozen, with foods bearing the USDA government label. Since GMOs are prohibited in organic food, choosing organic should cover both.
  2. If you don’t see the organic or GMO project label, then check to make sure no derivatives of corn, soy, canola, sugar (except cane), or cottonseed oil are in the product. Those crops are the most likely to contain GMOs.
  3. Check the PLU labels: the little stickers on your fruit? They are actually code for organic, GMOs, and conventionally grown produce. If the code starts with an 8, the food contains GMOs and if it starts with a 9, it’s organic.
  4. Eat foods in their most natural state possible: avoiding packaged and processed foods is a guiding principle for any healthy diet, especially to avoid GMOs and other dangerous ingredients. I think we can all agree that real, whole foods will always offer the best nutritional value.
  5. Shop at your local farmer’s market: Many small local farms are already using the principles of organic farming without the official label, so they are great places to shop. Don’t be afraid to ask stall owners questions and look for the USDA label. Shopping at the farmer’s market will also keep the cost factor of buying organic down.
  6. Grow your own produce: gardening in the backyard can become both a meaningful family project and a way to ensure your food isn’t exposed to chemicals. Food from your own garden is the number one way to be certain about your food.
  7. Join a CSA: even if you don’t have time to tend to your own garden, you can buy from someone else’s. Just do your research beforehand to make sure they use organic gardening methods.


Here’s a handy little infograph reference for you to pin that gives you a quick overview of GMO-free versus organic:

GMO free vs organic


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