How to Avoid GMOs: What the USDA Organic Symbol Means


While millions of consumers are still waiting for the institution of labeling so they can have a better handle on how to avoid GMOs, the option of buying organic remains the best one on the table for the time being for those who wish to stay GMO-free.

Many people know that organic is better for the environment and for health to the lack of health and soil-diminishing chemicals, but they don’t quite know what the USDA’s standards entail. The USDA remains an organization that is not completely trustworthy in the eyes of many in the natural health and GMO-free movements due to the presence of big-money co-opting their mission of providing safe, healthy food and transparency from food makers, but the organization does provide oversight in regards to organic standards through tens of thousands of on-site inspections each year.

So, how best can you avoid GMOs (other than buying growing your own food through heirloom seeds), and what do organic standards entail? Let’s discuss.

How to Avoid GMOs and More on Organic Standards

The USDA Organic green and white seal is quite well known, but there are variations of it that people should be aware of when shopping.

The USDA organic label and other similar food labels.

The USDA organic label and other similar food labels.

The most common one is the classic USDA Organic label, which means that the food you buy with it has been produced and processed according to USDA standards and that 95% of the food’s ingredients, at least, are organically produced.

Up to five percent may be non-organic (excluding salt and water). Foods that are completely organic, however, say 100% organic and also carry a USDA seal. They usually contain their own unique artwork in addition to the USDA symbol.

The third type of organic label is the ‘Made with Organic Ingredients” label, which states that such products must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water), but the regular organic seal can’t be used on these products. These products also contain their own unique artwork, but don’t feature the familiar symbol.

In addition, you can also avoid GMOs by purchasing products that are Non-GMO Project Verified after undergoing a third-party certification process. These products are not necessarily organic, however.

Luckily, all three products using the USDA labeling terms prohibit the use of “excluded methods” including genetic engineering (GMOs), sewage sludge (ugh) and ionizing radiation, according to the USDA.


Voluntary Labels Verified by the USDA

The following terms on food packages are voluntary, but are inspected by the USDA for truthfulness according to its website.

Free range- Indicates that birds were provided shelter and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. However in this case, the animals are often provided feed which means they are not necessarily pasture-raised.

Cage-free- Indicates that the birds were able to roam freely in their place of shelter with unlimited access to food and fresh water during the production cycle. However, some have disputed whether this term is all that meaningful as the animals could still be fed GMOs (if the label doesn’t say organic) and ultimately not have much room to roam around due to overcrowding.

Natural- Animal products with this distinction must be “minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients.” This label only applies to the processing of meat and egg products; there are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural products if they don’t contain meat or eggs. Also be aware that GMOs could well be present in these products through animal feed.

Grass-fed- This distinction means animals get the majority of their nutrients from grass, while organic animals’ pasture diet may be supplemented with grain (the USDA does not state whether grass-fed animals may also eat grain but they often do according to most insiders; some labels say 100% grass fed but these are mostly from small producers). Be aware that this label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides on its own, however.

Pasture-raised- There is no current definition or oversight for this term from the USDA due to the many variables involved, its website says.

Humane- No USDA oversight is administered for this term.

No added hormones or “raised without hormones”- Federal regulations have never permitted hormones or steroids in poultry, pork, or goat, as the USDA notes on its website. However, this term could apply to products produced by cattle.


Know Your Food Producers (and Support the Little Guys) 

Beyond that, it’s important know your source and know the company behind it. Many ethical and usually independent organic companies are well known for their dedication to preserving the best standards and staying as GMO free as possible, minimizing or even eliminating the dreaded cross contamination of their products through testing and safe practices. A company that makes mostly organic food but is owned by a major corporation like General Mills or Kellogg’s however, may not be as trustworthy.

Finally, keep an eye out for non-meat related “natural” products. The word is not regulated as organic is, meaning it may be hard to avoid GMOs in these products, especially those that are made from big companies. Pepsi for example touts its “Natural” Sierra Mist soda, but it is almost certainly made with GMO beet sugar. Several lawsuits have been filed against companies using GMO ingredients in their non-animal food products,  leading to settlements including one from the Naked Juice Company.

Other genetically modified ingredients that could be present in “natural” snack foods include corn, soy, and canola. GMO beet sugar usually says simply “Sugar” on that label, which sounds simple but is actually from a complex, lab created, entirely unnatural ingredient. While organic is the way to go, also be aware that some companies are not capable of getting organically certified, as well as farmer. Many small farmers growing with organic methods that can’t afford to get certified have banded together to create a new, grassroots labeling system which you can read about here.

Farmers who sell $5,000 or less each year are allowed to make claims without being certified according to this PDF of organic labeling standards from the USDA.

Buying organic is a great way to avoid GMOs for the time being, but beware that you may be exposing yourself to some GMO material due to cross-contamination if you buy foods made from high-risk ingredients like yellow corn and soybeans.

Also, keep in mind that there are many large companies hoping to co-opt the term and to water such standards down. It is for those reasons that we should always be vigilant and support the best companies who truly care, not those who are under the watchful eye of the multi-national corporations like Pepsi and Kraft who have been fighting GMO labeling with millions of dollars.

That being said, it’s always a smart idea to buy organic, and it’s getting less expensive and more convenient to do so. Keep it up!

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About Nick Meyer

Nick Meyer is a journalist who's been published in the Detroit Free Press, Dallas Morning News and several other outlets. He founded AltHealthWORKS in 2012 to showcase extraordinary stories of healing and the power of organic living, stories the mainstream media always seemed to miss. Check out Nick's Amazon best-seller 'Dirt Cheap Organic: 101 Tips For Going Organic on a Budget' by clicking here, as well as its sequel Dirt Cheap Weight Loss.