What Does Non-GMO Mean? Decoding Food Ingredient Labels

What does non GMO mean: NON GMO sign on a plant

We’re in an era when food labels are getting easier to understand but somehow more complex at the same time. We’re not sure how it can be both, but here we are. Thankfully, some companies are making it simpler than ever to see what’s inside a box of nuggets or your favorite crackers at the grocery store. But what do some of the labels on your food packaging mean? Like, what does non-GMO REALLY mean?

Keep reading to learn more about GMO foods, how non-GMOs stack up against organic foods, and why you may want to opt for non-GMO ingredients when possible. 

What Does Non-GMO Really Mean?

What does non GMO mean: woman looking at a product in a grocery store

Answering the question, “what does non-GMO mean?” is pretty straightforward. When you see a food product or ingredient labeled as non-GMO, it means it isn’t a genetically modified organism. We know there's a bit to unpack here despite that simple answer, so let's get to it.

The basic concept of genetically modifying foods isn’t entirely new. Farmers have been breeding plants and animals with the intention of producing particular characteristics for centuries. In fact, you can thank selective plant breeding for the watermelons, bananas, carrots, peaches, and corn that grace your supermarket’s produce section today. Believe it or not, all of those were barely edible once upon a time — or at least a considerably less tasty version than what you add to your cart today.

But it’s not just about domestication. Altering plant genetics can mean the tomatoes you plant in your garden have a higher yield when it's time to harvest them. Or you might enjoy a slightly sweeter glass of lemonade in the summer because you used Meyer lemons, a cross between regular lemons and mandarin oranges.

Unlike the plant breeding practiced by farmers, a genetically modified plant is tinkered with in a lab — and it involves changing the genetic structure of that plant to produce desirable qualities. So instead of taking several growing seasons and generations to produce a more flavorful or disease-resistant plant, scientists have created a massive shortcut with bioengineering. 

Is “Bioengineered” Just Another Word for GMO?

In a word, yes. You might have noticed that some food labels indicate the product was made with “bioengineered ingredients.” Per the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a bioengineered food item is one “that has been modified through certain laboratory techniques for which modification could not be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” Translation: This was made in a lab because traditional and natural cross-breeding of plants wouldn’t get us the same result.

As of January 1, 2022, food labeling must disclose when something contains bioengineered or GMO ingredients. However, keep in mind that not everything will have a bioengineered ingredient disclosure. There is a caveat for some highly refined ingredients — and retail food establishments don't have to disclose anything about genetically modified ingredients in their food unless they choose to do so. If you're enjoying a meal with your family and are concerned about GMOs in your food, be sure to ask if the ingredients used in your meal are non-GMO.

Psst: Regardless of whether a label says GMO or bioengineered, the final result is the same — food or ingredients that are genetically modified in a laboratory setting.

Why Genetic Modification?

Using biotechnology to alter specific genes inside a plant means new desirable traits, but what does that mean exactly? By modifying the genetic material of a plant, farmers can have crops that are more resistant to certain pests or diseases.

Case in point: papaya’s ringspot virus. Spread by aphids, ringspot disease can decimate a fruit harvest and take the farmer's livelihood with them. Even more so as there are few options for saving a plant once the virus presents itself. But the genetically modified version of papaya has been a success in recent years. It has allowed farmers to cut back on the amount of pesticides they use and ensure a successful harvest.

And there are more crops than you might think subject to genetic engineering. Here are some of the most common GMO crops:

  • Canola oil 
  • Alfalfa 
  • Soybeans
  • Corn
  • Sugar beets
  • Zucchini
  • Papaya 

Some of these crops have their genes edited to be more resistant to herbicides like glyphosate (such as the brand Roundup), produce higher yields, or avoid other viruses that could wipe out a crop. 

Downsides of GMO Crops

Tractor spraying pesticides on a field

We've answered the question, “What does non-GMO mean?” Now it's time to explore some of the reasons why many people seek out non-GMO foods over their genetically modified counterparts.

Pesticide Use and Environmental Concerns

Many GMO crops are genetically engineered to have greater herbicide tolerance, and even though this means farmers should be using fewer synthetic pesticides, studies have found the opposite to be true. Washington State University’s research professor Charles Benbrook recently discussed findings from a 2012 study he conducted on pesticide use and where things stand today. Benbrook observed, “the average Wisconsin soybean field will likely be treated with about three different herbicides … and the dose of glyphosate needed to control weeds has risen 15%.”

Increased use of pesticides and herbicides undoubtedly impacts local ecosystems. It can also affect the very nature of genetically modified plants themselves, where they may potentially become invasive or damage the biodiversity in natural environments.

When farmers buy GMO seeds, they often enter into contracts with seed companies where they agree to purchase new seeds each year and not replant the seeds from previous harvests. This is in stark contrast to seed saving and other regenerative agricultural practices used by organic farmers.

Risk to Human Health

The use of GMOs in our food products and supply chain is a hotly debated topic. The editing of specific plant genes in GMO products leaves people wondering about the potential long-term effects on human health from consuming genetically modified foods.

Animal toxicity studies have demonstrated negative health impacts on various organ systems. Moreover, some crops could contain contaminants such as heavy metals and other toxic substances. Still, genetically modified foods are generally considered safe for human consumption, so more long-term studies are needed before any definitive claims can be made as to how bioengineered foods might impact human health.

Understanding Food Labels: Organic vs. Non-GMO

Chances are, you're already giving food labels a glance before they land in your shopping cart. But if you aren't sure what to look for, here are some things to keep in mind if you're aiming to bring home GMO-free foods.

First, it’s important to note that all USDA organic foods are non-GMO, but not all food labeled non-GMO is organic.

The simplest way to avoid GMOs is to buy organic foods. Organic certification means the item is free of GMOs. Organic regulations prohibit all genetically engineered or modified foods, which means farmers can't use GMO seeds, and animals aren't eating feed made from GMO crops. The organic label also means farmers need to ensure they're protecting their crops from genetically modified substances throughout the harvesting and production process.

If organic products aren’t readily available or you’re on a budget, there are still ways you can enjoy GMO-free ingredients.

You may have noticed the friendly butterflies on the Non-GMO Project verified food items while wandering your grocery store aisles. This label certifies that the product in your hand is not only non-GMO but it's also verified as such by a third party.

Looking for a simple “non-GMO” label is another way to avoid bioengineered foods if that’s your preference. Companies know people are interested in making informed decisions for their families, which means having information on what they're buying.

Take Nowadays nuggets for instance. These plant-based nuggets are made with 7 simple, easy-to-understand ingredients, all non-GMO. Made with organic pea protein, whole wheat flour, and other wholesome ingredients, they're equally delicious in a cozy nugget pot pie or sweet-and-savory chicken and waffles.

Make an Informed Decision About GMO Foods

So, what does non-GMO mean? It means the ingredient or food was made without genetically modified ingredients. While GMOs have been deemed safe for us to eat, there are some potential health and environmental concerns that require further investigation. Fortunately, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. The next time you're at the supermarket, we hope you confidently navigate the array of food options and make choices that best fit you and your family.

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