Food Labels 101: What You NEED to Know

The food labels we encounter at the grocery store can prove complicated. So to help you (and us) decipher what is what, here’s the basics behind the food labeling “system” in the U.S.  

BIOENGINEERED FOODS contain detectable genetic material modified through lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature. The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law (July 2016) directs the USDA to establish a standard for disclosing foods that are or may be bioengineered. It requires food manufacturers, importers and certain retailers to ensure bioengineered foods are appropriately disclosed. Mandatory compliance is January 1, 2022.

“This law was passed to create an equal standard for GMOs across the country instead of having each state have their own patchwork regulations. It would be incredibly difficult for food companies to market their products if every state had their own standard and would increase costs that would ultimately be passed down to the consumer.” —Katie Nelson, program manager, policy and regulatory affairs, for the Indiana State Department of Agriculture 

GENETIC ENGINEERED ORGANISMS (GEO) are produced by introducing, eliminating or rearranging specific genes. GE foods are modified by human manipulation where genes from an unrelated species are introduced in order to create a desirable trait. In other words, if the food is created through genetic engineering, it has been modified in ways that do not occur naturally. In 1996, 4.2 million acres of farmland worldwide were covered with GE crop cultivation. By 2016, more than 457 million acres had GE crops, of which more than half were in developing countries. Of the major crops (corn, canola, cotton, soybean), 53% had been introduced a trait for herbicide tolerance (HT); 14% for insect resistance (IR); and 33% for both HT and IR.

“The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard also avoids a patchwork state-by-state system that could be confusing to consumers.” —U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue 

GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS (GMO) are produced through genetic modification. In a GMO, DNA is altered to create a specific desirable trait (like drought tolerance or herbicide resistance). The modification can happen by traditional methods, such as crossbreeding of plants within the same species, or by human manipulation. Some countries other than the U.S. use this term to refer specifically to genetic engineering.

THE NON-GMO PROJECT is a nonprofit organization committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices. It is the only third-party verification program in North America. More information on the certification program can be found online at

“I feel strongly that the FDA can do more to assist the American public with creating healthier diets for themselves and their families.” —Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner (2017–April 2019) 

CERTIFIED ORGANIC PRODUCTS cannot contain any substances outlawed by the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, and must meet USDA organic regulations.

  • The use of genetic engineering is prohibited in organic products. 
  • But, a non-GMO label does not mean the product is organic. 
  • Organic foods fall into three categories: 
    • Organic 
    • 100% organic 
    • Made with organic ingredients

NATURAL AND HEALTHY foods are defined differently, depending on who’s doing the defining. The USDA regulates meat, poultry and egg products while the FDA regulates all other foods. Under the USDA, beef and poultry can be labeled “natural” if it wasn’t “fundamentally altered” during processing and contains no artificial ingredients or added colors. The FDA has no definition for “natural,” however, and in 2018 then-Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said that in order to make the undefined claim, it “must be true and based on science.” At the time, the agency was also considering criteria that would allow a food to be labeled “healthy.” Definitions throughout this piece are from the USDA.

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