Plate-Wise •  6/2/2021

What do GMO-free and natural labels mean?

Written By Bethany McIntyre 
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A cereal box with cheerios coming out of it.

Some definitions in life are clear — a red traffic light means stop, a green light means go. Other definitions are downright confusing. Especially when they come to our food.

From a scientific perspective, labels are important to help you choose what is best for you and your family. Unfortunately, some labels are simply misleading. My top picks for most confusing food labels? Those that use language around being “Natural” and “GMO-free.” Here’s why:

The ‘natural’ label on food products lacks clarity

In Canada and the United States, the term “natural” does not have a clear definition. Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a good foundation for a definition, there is still room for interpretation. One example is that the FDA definition doesn’t address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides.

Without a clear definition, consumers are making assumptions of what “natural” means. Lack of a definition unfortunately leads people to misinterpret these labels, thinking they mean everything from organic to environmentally friendly.  

The implied superiority of the non-GMO label

If a food is labeled as genetically modified organism (GMO), then we know that it has been “derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally.”1 The confusing part to me is that GMO labeling can imply the superiority of non-GMO foods, and that’s simply not true. 

There are also only 14 GMO crops grown in the world. This means that when food outside of these handful of crops are labeled non-GMO, it’s misleading because there isn’t actually a GMO option for them. For example, there is no GMO wheat. Because of that, boxes of crackers or packages of pasta that include the non-GMO label can create additional confusion to a consumer, who may think that wheat is, in fact, a GMO crop. 

While these are two of the more confusing food labels, there are more food buzzwords that can complicate routine visits to the supermarket. The good news is, with a little research, you can separate fact from fiction and feel confident that you’re making the right food choices for your family.

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Want to learn more about debunking food buzzwords? Read more here.


1 From World Health Organization Food, Genetically modified