GMO, Non-GMO, Organic. What’s the difference?

Labels can be so confusing when you are trying to buy healthy food. GMO, GMO free vs organic… what’s the difference? Let me try to help! This blog post aims to provide a comprehensive overview of GMOs, non-GMOs, and organic farming, exploring the key differences, advantages, and concerns associated with each approach. 

usda organic seal
non gmo project verified seal
bioengineered seal

What are GMOs?

Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, involve altering the genetic material of plants, animals, or microorganisms in a manner not found naturally through mating or natural recombination. Typically, this modification serves to enhance specific traits or characteristics, like resistance to pests, herbicides, or the ability to withstand harsh environmental conditions. It’s worth noting that approximately 75% of processed foods are estimated to include genetically modified ingredients.

organic farming fields with blooming green crops

Are GMO Foods Safe? 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), GMOs are considered safe for consumption, which is why they are allowed in grocery stores in the US. However, those in the holistic/organic food communities have raised concerns. It is unclear all of the longterm effects that GMO foods can have on our health, but some studies have shown some alarming changes to the “genome and the epigenome (pattern of gene expression) by those consuming gmo foods (source). 

Here are some other potential health risks of GMOs (source):

  1. Allergic Reactions Increasing
  2. Antibiotic Resistance
  3. Cancer
  4. Loss of Nutrition
  5. Toxicity

In short, genetically modified foods are not real foods from nature, and the risks in consuming them far outweigh any benefit (hint, there are no benefits for the consumer). 

woman shopping  for fresh organic vegetables. non gmo vs. organic

Why are Foods Genetically Modified?

If GMOs have such bad potential effects, why is this practice used? Here are a few reasons that farmers are using GMO practices: 

  1. Increased Crop Yields: GMOs are engineered to increase crop yields. More crops means more profit.
  2. Resistance to Pests and Diseases: Some GMO crops are designed to resist pests and diseases.
  3. Tolerance to Herbicides: Certain GMOs can withstand herbicides, making weed control more efficient.
  4. Extended Shelf Life: GMOs can undergo modification to extend their shelf life, thereby reducing food waste.

What Foods are GMO?

In 2023, several of the common foods found in grocery stores undergo genetic modification. Here’s a list of a some that you may not even realize you are consuming:

  1. Corn
  2. Soy
  3. Canola
  4. Alfalfa
  5. Sugar Beets (think refined sugar)
  6. Cotton (like cottonseed oil)
  7. Papaya 
  8. Summer Squash/Zucchini
  9. Animal Products (conventional meats and dairy)
  10. Microbes and Enzymes (cooking and process agents. Often not even listed on food labels)
  11. Apples
  12. Potatoes

Food Ingredients that are often GMO:

  • Vegetable oils, margarines (specifically margarines that are made with soy, cottonseed, corn, and/or canola oil).
  • Ingredients that come from soybeans like soybean oil, soy flour, soy protein, soy isolates, soy isoflavones, soy lecithin, vegetable proteins, tofu, tamari, tempeh and soy protein supplements.
  • Ingredients derived from corn, like corn flour, corn gluten, corn masa, cornstartch, corn syrup, corn meal and high fructose corn syrup.

And more not on this list! 

What is Organic Farming?

Organic farming is an agricultural practice that focuses on maintaining soil quality, using natural methods for pest control, and avoiding the use of synthetic fertilizers, genetically-modified organisms, and antibiotics. Organic farms also use sustainable and environmentally friendly practices. 

organic farm with cows grazing

Certified Organic

Farmers and producers use the label “certified organic” to indicate that they have followed specific organic farming standards and practices when producing agricultural products like food, crops, and livestock. These standards aim to promote environmentally sustainable and ecologically friendly agricultural methods while also ensuring that the products are free from synthetic chemicals, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and other artificial additives. Different countries may have varying specific criteria for organic certification, but generally recognized principles guide the certification process:

No Synthetic Chemicals

Organic farming practices prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Instead, organic farmers rely on natural and organic alternatives for pest control and soil enrichment.

Prohibited Use of GMOs

Certified organic products are not derived from genetically modified organisms. This ensures that the seeds and organisms used in organic agriculture are non-GMO.

Sustainable Farming Practices

Organic farming emphasizes sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, such as crop rotation, cover cropping, and reduced tillage, to maintain soil health and fertility.

No Synthetic Hormones or Antibiotics

Organic livestock are raised without the use of synthetic growth hormones or antibiotics. They are provided with access to the outdoors and raised in conditions that prioritize animal welfare.

No Artificial Additives

Producers of organic foods make their products without artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors. Only a limited list of natural additives is allowed.

Certification Oversight

Organic products are usually certified by a third party organization or government agency. These certifying bodies ensure that the products meet the established organic standards and regularly inspect and monitor organic farms and operations.


Certified organic products are labeled as “organic” and often display a certification seal to indicate that they meet the required standards. Labels may vary by region, but they typically include variations such as “100% organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic ingredients,” depending on the percentage of organic content in the product.

To clarify, certified organic products do not permit the inclusion of GMOs, making this one of the best methods to avoid them. Products bearing labels like “100% organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic ingredients” are prohibited from incorporating genetically engineered ingredients (source). When you are at the grocery store, look for the official certified organic label. Some companies may attempt to deceive you by placing “organic” somewhere on the packaging, but if it lacks the official label, it might not actually be certified organic.

organic vs non gmo vegetables

What are Non-GMOs or GMO Free?

Non-genetically modified, or GMO-free products signify food or ingredients that do not originate from genetically modified organisms. Farmers cultivate non-GMO crops through traditional breeding and farming methods, intentionally avoiding the introduction of modified genes.

The Non-GMO Project

The non-GMO project is a non-profit organization with the goal of “protecting your right to know what’s in your food.” Two grocery stores started the non-GMO project in an effort to keep consumers informed and promote greater transparency for brands regarding their ingredients. They have a non-gmo project standard that if a product holds up to, it gets the non gmo project seal on it’s packaging. If you are buying a product with non-organic ingredients, you can look for official gmo project verified seal to ensure there hasn’t been any genetic modification.

GMO Free vs Organic… Does it Matter?

Should you as a consumer buy GMO free or Organic? The answer depends on your health goals. If your goal is to avoid GMOs, as long as you are buying certified organic, or non-gmo project standard labeled food products, it doesn’t matter. Either way those products won’t contain any GMOs. However, there are other benefits to buying organic food. For example organic products are grown in an environment that avoids synthetic chemicals and pesticides. Consider buying organic whenever you can!

How Do I Avoid GMOs?

Thankfully, with certified organic and non-gmo project labels, making an informed decision is getting easier. Here are some best practices to avoid GMOs the next time you are shopping:

  1. Buy Certified Organic foods whenever possible. Organic food products are not allowed to be genetically modified or contain genetically modified ingredients. 
  2. If not buying certified organic, buy foods with the official non-gmo project seal. These foods have passed the standard and do not contain gmo ingredients. 
  3. Learn how to read labels carefully. Look for ingredients that are likely to be gmo. Avoid seed oils and other high risk ingredients. 
  4. Buy from small farms. Local produce, meat, and dairy products from small farms are much less likely to be gmo. Always talk to your local farmers to better understand their farming practice and how they grow their food and feed their animals. My favorite product to buy from small local farms is raw milk.
gmo vs non gmo vs organic. what's the difference?

Whether Organic or GMO free… Avoid GMOs! 

I hope that this blog post brought some clarity as you browse the grocery store aisles. GMO free and organic are similar as long as the product is actually non gmo. Genetically modified organisms can be very dangerous, and eating anything GMO is not worth it in my opinion. As a consumer, becoming educated on farming practices, standards for food production, and reading labels can help you to buy the best food possible for you and your family. 

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