August 31, 2016
Last Updated:
March 4, 2021

Non-GMO vs. USDA Organic: Which Should You Choose?

When it comes to food labeling, many Americans understandably aren’t clear on the differences between ‘non-GMO’ (non-genetically modified organisms) labels and ‘organic’ labels.

In fact, Dan Charles, of NPR’s The Salt, a column dedicated to eating and health, conducted an experiment outside of a Whole Foods Market in Washington D.C to demonstrate the confusion surrounding these health claims. With two egg cartons in hand – one labeled “Non-GMO Project Verified” and one labeled “USDA Organic” – he asked shoppers which carton they would buy.

The result? The majority of shoppers opted for the non-GMO eggs instead of the USDA organic ones. At roughly 50 cents less a carton, it seems like a suitable choice for millions of Americans striving to eat healthily while on a budget.

In fact, non-GMO labeled products have seen a drastic increase in sales within the past few years. According to Megan Westgate, Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project, annual sales are at about $16 billion, up from $7 billion just two years ago.

The more costly, organic-labeled foods have seen an increase in sales as well but of lesser capacity.

The problem with this disparity is that while the two labels have similar goals - to empower shoppers to make educated decisions about the foods they buy - they find themselves competing with one another instead. 

According to Charles, the problem stems from the facts that “the organic rules cover everything from food additives to animal welfare to soil fertility. Consumers respond better to a message that focuses on just one thing — like a ban on GMOs.”

So, what’s the difference and why does organic cost more?
Allen Williams, a farm owner from Cerro Gordo, Illinois, helps us understand this difference. On his farm, Williams grows a variety of crops three different ways – organic, “verified non-GMO” and genetically modified. The non-GMO and GMO crops are treated with factory-supplied fertilizers and chemical weed killers while organic cops are treated with chicken manure as fertilizer and local high school students clear the weeds by hand. Because most farms don’t operate this way, there is a shortage of organic crops globally. This has consequently resulted in a price increase for organic-labeled foods.

Is one better than the other?
Interestingly enough, while official organic rules prohibit genetic engineering, organic food companies aren’t required to test their ingredients for the presence of GMO’s. So for those devoted to eating organic and non-GMO foods you’ll want to look for both labels!

And as Jesse LaFlamme, CEO and owner of Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs says, “it’s great that there’s a non-GMO symbol on the product” but it’s important to consider that it “might have been produced with pesticides, antibiotics, and with no regard for animal welfare.”

The conclusion?
Despite convincing marketing tactics, just because a food is labeled “non-GMO” doesn’t immediately make it a better choice. It’s up to you to make the informed decision based on your beliefs and budget.

It’s an unfortunate truth that food labeling is confusing and often twisted to support the producers and not consumers. At Integrative Nutrition, we believe that eating healthy isn’t rocket science – but it does take guidance. As Health Coaches, it’s our responsibility to support people in making health and wellness decisions they can feel confident about. As we continue to revolutionize healthcare through education and knowledge sharing, we strive to make information less complex and more accessible to the public.

How do you decipher health claims on food products? Share with us in the comments below!

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