Natural, Organic & Non-GMO: What’s the Difference?

by | Updated: December 4th, 2016 | Read time: 3 minutes

Millions of consumers want to make more healthful food choices. And yet the search for better products can be frustrating.

Look on any grocery shelf, and you will see a wide range of healthful claims. Some say their peanut butter is “all natural.” Others boast of “organic” baby food, or “non-GMO” soups.

Non-Gmo, Natural and Organic - What's the Difference

All of these different declarations can be confusing, says Courtney Pineau, associate director of the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit based in Bellingham, Wash., that labels foods as “non-GMO” if they meet certain standards.

“It can often be difficult to discern the meaningfulness and integrity of their claims,” she says.

You will have much better success in choosing healthful foods if you understand the meaning of three key terms – natural, organic and non-GMO – and what they really signify.

Defining 3 key terms

The three terms sound similar, but actually are distinct:

Natural. Seeing this label affixed to your food seems like it would be a good thing. From the craze for kale to the popularity of the Paleo diet, it seems everyone is trying to get their food back to a “natural” state.

But Consumer Reports says the “natural” label does not indicate that the food meets any stringent government or third-party standards and is “essentially meaningless.”

And yet, a Consumer Reports survey found that more than 75 percent of people believe “natural” has a substantive – and positive – meaning, such as that the food has no artificial ingredients or colors.

Consumer Reports is so concerned about this misconception that the organization has pushed to have the label banned.

Organic. The news is a little better with this label. Consumer Reports found that two-thirds of people believe “organic” is applied to foods that were produced without using toxic pesticides or antibiotics. And for the most part, that is true, the organization says.

Consumer Reports notes that “by law, organic foods cannot contain synthetic fertilizers, industrial pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones or artificial food ingredients.”

However, there are reasons for concern. Consumer Reports says that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a list of exempted ingredients that can be used when producing “organic” foods.

Once an ingredient makes this list, it remains there for five years – or even longer. Dozens of ingredients – from alcohols and ozone gas, to potassium bicarbonate and sulfurous acid – have appeared on this list.

In addition, products need only be made up of at least 95 percent organic ingredients to carry the organic seal from the USDA.

Non-GMO. Americans are concerned about genetically modified organisms – or GMOs – in their food. According to the Consumer Reports survey, nearly 75 percent of consumers believe it is crucial to avoid foods with GMOs, and 90 percent believe foods with GMOs should be clearly labeled as such and required to meet safety standards.

And yet, the Food and Drug Administration has no such requirements.

How to find the most healthful foods

So, what can consumers do to ensure they are eating the most healthful foods?

Buying organic is a good first step. Pineau notes that GMOs are prohibited in organic products. That means “farmers can’t use GMO seeds, animals can’t consume GMO feed, and end products can’t contain GMO ingredients,” she says.

However, as noted above, some products that claim organic status are not always what they appear to be. For that reason, Organic Lifestyle magazine recommends that you buy products that have a label indicating they are “100% organic.”

“Only products made entirely with certified organic ingredients and methods can be labeled ‘100% organic,'” the magazine notes.

And if you want to go the extra mile in terms of food healthfulness, look for the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal and its butterfly symbol. The Non-GMO Project has verified nearly 35,000 products from more than 1,900 brands.

“This means that all major high-risk ingredients have been tested, and comply with our action thresholds for GMO contamination,” Pineau says.

The Non-GMO Project also has launched an Non-GMO Project that allows you to search for products verified as non-GMO, and retailers that sell them.

Pineau also urges customers generally to look for certifications from independent third-party organizations, as there are “many unsubstantiated or self-made claims on store shelves.”