Food Labels 101: Breaking Down “Organic”, “All-Natural” and “Non-GMO”

Have you ever been on a mission at a grocery store, zipping down aisles, on the hunt for yummy healthy foods when you hit a speed bump? Food labels like “organic”, “all-natural” and “Non-GMO” make you pump the breaks and slow your high-speed?

When I see these inviting yet mysterious words, I immediately think “Perfect, that’s healthy, grab it!” Then I linger a little longer and ponder “What does organic even mean and how is that different from all-natural?”


The downward spiral has begun. I have fallen into the trap that the food industry has set. Not only do I not know the difference between these labels, I continue to shove food into my cart thinking that I do!

This has happened to me time and time again and I finally said enough is enough. It was time to dig in, do some research and be able to make educated decisions on what I’m putting into my grocery cart every Monday night and, more importantly, what I am putting into body. Here is what I found:


Organic – such a simple word, packed with a whole lot of meaning! The definition of “organic” is ever-changing as it is dramatically different from what it meant 20 years ago. In 1990, Congress passed a law called the Organic Foods Production Act. This law put standard regulations in place for what foods could be considered organic. Since then, with the help of activists and environmentalists, a board of directors has been established and regulations have dramatically increased. The more pressure environmentalists put on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the more fruitful the term “organic” becomes.

Today, food labels that say “organic” signify that the food has been grown and processed according to the federal guidelines addressing soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control and use of additives, says the USDA. Food must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity.

What does all that even mean? Basically, crops must be grown without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes, petroleum-based fertilizers and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Boston Organics explained that processed foods must contain 95 percent organic ingredients. The other 5 percent (seasonings and water), must not contain any genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) Also, animals must have access to the outdoors, be fed 100 percent organic feed and be given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

According to the USDA, food labels that say “organic” must be certified under the National Organic Program (a division of the USDA) and be labeled with a green and white sticker on it that says “USDA Organic”. Verification of this sticker is maintained through annual inspections.



Be careful with food labels that say “all-natural”. According to the Food and Drug Administration, this term applies broadly to foods that are minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, growth hormones, antibiotics, hydrogenated oils and stabilizers.

But there is a catch: there is a very small percentage of food labeled “natural” that is subject to regulation and health codes that already apply to all foods. That small percentage is made up of poultry. The FDA also says that “all-natural” food labels do not take into account the production methods used, such as pesticides, pasteurization or irradiation.

Because the FDA and USDA do not define “all-natural” or provide strict regulations, there are many iterations of food labels like this within a grocery store.


According to the Non-GMO Project, a GMO is defined as a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified using recombinant DNA methods, gene modification or transgenic technology. The overall goal of using genetic engineering is to give the original organism new characteristics, such as disease resistance. Food labels that say “Non-GMO” mean that the item is not genetically modified. Non-GMO does not mean the food item is organic.

Engineering food to be a GMO is extremely controversial as there are many pros and cons to the final outcome. According to, GMO’s tend to be more nutritious, sometimes require less chemicals and are insect resistant; however, GMO’s are also linked to allergic reactions, decreased antibiotic efficacy and a harmed ecosystem.

According to the American Bar, the FDA and USDA do regulate GMO’s, but these administrations place responsibility on the producer or manufacturer to assure the safety of food. The FDA and USDA only look to make sure that the genetically modified (GM) food is not materially different from non-GMO food. There is currently no regulatory system requiring GM food to be tested to see whether it is safe for humans to eat. According to the Center for Food Safety, there are 67 countries that require the labeling of GM food. The UNited States is not one of them.

The Non-GMO label you see in stores is provided by the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a non-GMO food supply. The non-profit works with suppliers, brands and retailers to provide consumers transparent choices in the market.

As you can see, there is much to consider when paying attention to food labels while grocery shopping. Use this information as a tool to decide what is best for you!

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About Emily Luzzo

A native Chicagoan, Emily has been a running enthusiast since the day she could tie her shoes. Raised as the oldest and only girl of four, Emily grew up in an active energetic household where “playing with the boys” was the norm. After hailing to the orange and blue at her alma mater, Illinois, Emily combined her passion for sports with health and wellness and joined the team that produces endurance events, one of which being the Chicago Marathon. By day, she works to elevate the endurance platform by collaborating with brands to provide a transcendent experience for athletes. When she is not running or planning races, you can find her biking on the lakefront path, cooking up a new recipe in the kitchen or planning her next travel adventure.