Over the past decade, the terms “organic” and “non-GMO” have transformed from obscure words to ubiquitous topics. It seems that anytime food choices are involved, organic and non-genetically modified organisms (GMO) products are discussed in terms of their importance, role in the environment and healthful diets, and overall value.
Organic products refer to the way a product or ingredient is produced. Organically raised crops are grown without use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizer, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Organic animal products such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy must come from livestock raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. A government certifier must inspect the production system in order to determine whether the farmer is within USDA organic guidelines.
Non-GMO refers to the genetic makeup of the organism from which an ingredient is derived. Genetically modified organisms have had their DNA altered via gene splicing, gene modification, or transgenic technology. This is typically done to improve crop quality and yield or to limit labor requirements for weed management.
Consumers feel strongly about these features of organic and non-GMO products for a variety of reasons, believing that choosing foods that meet these guidelines will benefit their health and the environment. The push from buyers has led to substantial increases in the market for organic and non-GMO products, with more and more companies and food manufacturers reformulating their products to meet guidelines to make these claims.
MarketsandMarkets predicts the global market for organic fruits and vegetables will reach $62.7 billion by 20201, and this doesn’t include the vast variety of other organic foods and products available. Furthermore, each week, approximately 80 new companies inquire to enroll with the Non-GMO Project2, a third-party certifier founded by natural and organic food retailers in 2007.
While consumers are very keyed into choosing foods that are labeled organic or non-GMO for health reasons, it is important to note that research does not support the idea that either organic or non-GMO foods provide greater nutritional value than conventionally produced food products.
Today’s Dietitian explains that research has shown no nutritional benefit to choosing organic versus nonorganic foods3. While a consumer may also have sustainability concerns, no significant nutrition or health effects can be attributed to organic products. Dietitians advise that people focus on consuming adequate fruits and vegetables as part of a balanced diet, regardless of whether the products and foods they choose are organic or not.
According to Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, there may be valid concerns regarding the environment and resistant pests with GMO production; however, these are not related to food safety4. Evidence does not support that GMO products pose health concerns, and there are many products from GMO crops, such as corn oil, sugar, and high fructose corn syrup, that have the altered genes essentially eliminated in processing, as the resultant product uses none of the actual cells of the crop. While these ingredients would not be considered non-GMO, it is easy to see that these GMO products are unlikely to impact the health of the consumer.
For a product to be considered organic or non-GMO, meeting standards can be a challenge. Guidelines are very specific and detail-oriented, considering even the livestock from which animal-derived products are harvested. Moreover, confusion and lack of completed guidelines muddy the waters of labeling.
In order to bear the USDA Organic certification label5, a food or product must be made with 95 percent certified organic ingredients by weight, and the remaining five percent must be organic-compliant, such as nonorganic agricultural products that are not available commercially in an organic version, or certain accepted nonagricultural products.
GMO labeling is far less clear-cut, as legal regulations have yet to be ironed out. Currently, the federal rule is that products containing GMO ingredients must contain disclosure labels indicating such. However, it is yet to be determined at what level GMO ingredients must be reported, and how this will be determined. Additionally, the form which the labeling takes is unknown as of yet6,7. There is also concern that GMO labeling will imply that GMOs are not safe, which is counter-productive to the intended goal to simply inform the consumer.
Sourcing ingredients: challenges and tips
Certain ingredients can extremely difficult to source; for example, over 90 percent of corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are GMO strains, leaving only a very small portion that would meet organic and non-GMO requirements. So forethought and careful planning are critical for formulators and manufacturers. While there is an increasing number of organic and non-GMO suppliers of many common ingredients, demand continues to outweigh availability.
Further compounding the demand for ingredients, a growing quantity of large food producers such as General Mills and Del Monte, are transitioning to organic and non-GMO formulations and products. Companies who need larger quantities of specific ingredients may find them difficult to come by consistently or at a manageable price.
Nutritional Outlook provides several tips for sourcing reliable organic and non-GMO ingredients and food products11:
- Request documentation or certification from suppliers to show that they do, in fact, produce organic and/or non-GMO ingredients.
- Select only suppliers who are third-party verified by organizations such as The Non-GMO Project or The Identity Preservation Program13.
- Investigate documentation of systems that segregate GMO and non-GMO goods to prevent cross-contamination.
- Take an international perspective and learn the laws of other countries from where products may be sourced in order to be fully aware of whether international ingredients meet U.S. standards.
- Look for experience and a successful track record from the supplier.
References and resources
- MarketsandMarkets: Organic Fruits & Vegetables Market worth $62.97 Billion by 2020
- The Non-GMO Project: org
- Today’s Dietitian: The Organic Foods Debate – Are They Healthier Than Conventional?
- FoodNavigator-USA.com: CSPI: There are legitimate concerns around GMOs, but not around food safety, and labeling would be misleading
- USDA: Organic Labeling Standards
- Natural Products Insider: Clarifying Certification and Claims for Clean Label
- Natural Products Insider: GMO Labeling Requirements
- org: Organic FAQ
- Reuters: S. food companies find going ‘non-GMO’ no easy feat
- The Organic & Non-GMO Report: Sourcing non-GMO and organic ingredients requires advance planning
- Nutritional Outlook: How to Source Non-GMO Ingredients and Suppliers
- Scientific American: The Truth about Genetically Modified Food
- USDA: The Identity Preservation Program
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