All Natural, Organic and Non GMO- What Does It All Mean?

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With the holidays approaching many of us will be purchasing large quantities food for special gatherings, and undoubtedly, choosing between products with different special labels, such as “all-natural” or “organic”. Many labels refer to an agricultural practice or set of practices used to produce the food. Labels are added to alter marketing appeal, but some labels are not regulated by any agency, and lack agricultural implications. I will not speak to any differences in nutritional value, but I hope to elucidate agricultural practices that we can decipher from some labels.

One of the most common qualifying labels is “organic.” This refers to a product grown under standards regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program. Farmers are audited annually by a third-party certifier which may enforce its own additional standards, in addition to USDA standards. It is illegal for a farm to use the word organic in their advertising material if they are not certified through this program. Processed foods must contain certain percentages of their ingredients from organic sources in order to qualify for various labels: “made with organic ingredients,” “organic,” and “100% organic.”

Organic farms use fertilizers derived from natural sources, such as manure, compost, waste products, and some mined materials such as limestone. They cannot use synthetic fertilizers such as a standard granular 10-10-10 fertilizer. Fruits, vegetables, and grains grown under organic standards can and do have pesticides applied to them, but they are typically derived from natural sources, and all non-pesticide methods of pest control must first be used before a pesticide can be applied. Herbicides are chemicals applied to control weeds, and because there are few effective herbicides that organic growers can use, weed control is performed with tilling the ground, hoeing, hand-weeding, mulches, plastic, or other means. Organic farms must develop management plans that incorporate practices such as cover cropping that promote soil health and minimize pests. Many non-organic farms incorporate similar practices to enhance productivity and health of their crops, soils, and ecosystems.

Animals raised under USDA Organic standards are fed only organic feed, and there are some extra requirements regarding percentage of a diet that must come from forage (roughage, or non-grain sources) and access to pasture. However, there may be only small differences, such as being fed only organic feed, between an organic and non-organic animal product. Organic animals cannot be administered hormones. If antibiotics are used to treat a sick animal, they cannot be sold as organic.

Another food label you may see is “non-GMO.” Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms into which a gene from another organism is inserted to alter their genetic code and confer a specific trait, such as resistance to a pest or herbicide.

NonGMO Project

As you shop for holiday gatherings, consider which labels are relevant from an agricultural perspective.

Genetic modification has important non-agricultural applications as well; for example, genetically modified (GM) bacteria are used to produce insulin for medical use. In agriculture GM crops are tools that can improve or simplify pest management, or enhance product quality. For example, GM apples are less susceptible to browning when cut. GM cotton or corn that contain the Bt gene enables the plant to produce a protein toxic to Lepidoptera larvae (caterpillar) pests when they feed on the plant. The pest dies as a result, and the farmer does not have to apply a pesticide to control the pest. However, when pest management strategies are overused and are not complimented with supporting tools, pests develop resistance to the tool – this is happening with some genetically modified crops. In some cases, this has led to yield losses, and the use of more or different pesticides.

Foods that contain GMOs are not required to be labeled (except in Vermont) but there is a voluntary program through which products can be labeled “non-GMO.”. Organic foods cannot contain GMOs. The only GMO products on the market are corn, soybean, cotton, canola, summer squash, papaya, sugarbeets, potatoes, alfalfa, apples, and foods that contain them. In 2015, the FDA approved a GM salmon, which reaches market size more quickly with a gene from a different salmon species. Other animal products labeled non-GMO have not been given feed containing GMOs.

There are a number of egg labels such as “cage-free” that have minimum standards through USDA. Cage-free and eggs “from free-roaming hens” are from hens that have access to food and water at all times and roam freely in a house. Free-range or pasture-fed hens must additionally have access to the outdoors. Like with organic labeling, USDA has minimum standards for each, but different certifying agencies such as Animal Welfare Approved may require additional standards.

Other common labels you may find include:

All-natural: This does not indicate anything about how crop or animal was raised. However, it does indicate that no synthetic ingredients are added to the food. The term ‘natural’ is not regulated, and can be put on an item that contains natural as well as synthetic ingredients.

Hormone-free: This label may be on animal products, though hormones are not ever allowed in the production of pork or poultry. Growth stimulants sometimes used in cattle production help animals reach slaughter weight more quickly.

rBST or rGBH-free: You will find this label on dairy products, and it means that the dairy cows are not given the BST (bovine somatotropin) hormone. This hormone is produced by cows naturally, and it is sometimes administered to extend milk production in a dairy cow. All milk contains this hormone, and milk from cows given rBST produce milk does not contain higher levels it.

Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, American Humane Certified, Food Alliance Certified: Seeing one of these symbols on an animal product indicates voluntary participation in handling and feed standards set by these organizations. The standards are different for each animal and certifying agency. Interested consumers should consult their websites for more information. Several local producers participate in the Animal Welfare Approved program.

Grass-fed: Grass-fed suggests that animals are fed grasses, other forages, hay and silage. This label does not currently have standards set by the USDA. However, farmers can participate in voluntary certification programs such as American Grassfed. North Carolina has established suggested guidelines for producers labeling their products as “local grass-fed beef.” Consumers interested in purchasing grass-fed meat should look for voluntary program labels.

Local: There is no regulated definition of “local”; however, many stores do purchase food from farms within a certain radius that they define as local. Consult a store website or management for information on their definition. If you are purchasing at a farmers’ market, some markets may allow food to be bought and re-sold at the market, so may not be grown locally, but other markets are “producer-only,” meaning that vendors can only sell what they produce themselves.

Many of these labels only refer to one aspect of a farms production. Non-GMO does not indicate whether pesticides were used how a farm manages its soil. As you shop during this upcoming holiday season, consider which labels are meaningful based on the label and the product you are purchasing. For specific questions about labels and agricultural practices, contact the Caldwell Extension Center at 828-757-1290 or visit us anytime online at