Semantics of Eating Healthy: Basic Terminology 101

Well, well, well, it’s been a minute, hasn’t it? I have to apologize for my mini hiatus lately. I’ve had some eye-related shenanigans going on, so I unfortunately have had very limited ability to be in front of bright things. And boy, when you’re in that dilemma, you really realize how time much we as a society spend in front of glowing screens! Anyways, I’m glad to be back in the saddle!

Okay, so I wanted to take it back a few steps, because I want to really make sure that I’m doing justice to all my readers, especially those who are still in the very early stages of their journey into better eating and living.

It kind of hit me when I casually used the phrase “non-GMO” in a conversation, and the person I was talking with had no idea what the heck I meant. It’s so much become a part of my life that I don’t think twice about it, but I really want to ensure that I’m not leaving anyone behind when I blog!

I understand that this whole arena can feel a bit daunting with so much terminology floating around, especially for newcomers. So, let me explain some of the most common (and important) ones you need to be aware of when shopping.

GMO vs. Non-GMO 

Let’s first go over what a GMO is. GMO stands for genetically modified organism, which means that a food item has been tinkered with genetically in some way in a lab. The reason behind doing so may vary by situation, and sounds at first like it’s a good thing – sure, it sounds great that a farmer will lose less crops to pests because of genetic engineering.

However, if the means of achieving that end requires altering the crop’s DNA to make it withstand greater doses of pesticides without dying, don’t forget what that means for us as consumers – even higher concentrations of cancer-causing pesticides like glyphosate on and in our food. (Please understand that such pesticides can absorb into the food, so if you think you can wash them off completely, you’re wrong.) Not to mention, it’s highly unnatural, and often means that genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the problems that arise from creating “Frankencrops”, since some of the crops can actually act as invasive species and contaminate nearby non-GMO crop fields.

When you tinker with the makeup of food, you’re also tinkering with what your body recognizes as food. Long-term effects of GMOs were never studied before we effectively became guinea pigs, but researchers are finally connecting the dots between GMOs and our country’s obesity epidemic.

Here’s some more food for thought: since the introduction of GMOs into our society in the 90s, food allergies have increased in all age groups, but have skyrocketed in children. Hmm could that maybe be because our country’s children are assaulted by junk products (especially cereals) that are nothing but GMO garbage? It’s not so much that we’re allergic to the food itself, but what’s being done to/sprayed on it. I’ve seen some really interesting articles like this one that suggest that the upsurge in cases of Celiac Disease (aka wheat gluten intolerance) is actually a reaction to the glyphosate pesticide sprayed onto GMO wheat. Take a look at this chart. Notice a common factor? (On a side note, notice that cow’s milk is all over this chart too, which does nothing but support the stance I discussed in my previous post.)


So, what are the most common GMO crops in the U.S., and how much of our U.S. crops are GMO? Estimates vary a little in percentage, but in general:

Screenshot 2016-08-11 14.25.19
Image credit:

Current estimates put GMOs in approximately 70-75% of the processed foods in your pantry, but that sounds low to me. I hate to break it to you, but those “trusted” family brands are wrongfully so; in fact, they are the worst offenders. Scary, right?

I also want to make it painfully clear that our country is being assaulted by GMOs in ways that other countries won’t accept, and it’s disgusting. Did you know that GMOs are outlawed, drastically limited, or have mandatory labeling law in more than 60 countries? Here in the U.S., it’s an uphill battle just to get mandatory labeling laws – state by state, the battle ensues. Unfortunately, our country’s food policies are so controlled by politics, corporate greed, and the influence of disastrous mega-giants like Monsanto, that the health and welfare of our people is back-burnered.

Here for example, is what a label looks like in the UK for a Hostess product (credit: As you can see, the GMO ingredients are called out with an asterisk, and the artificial food coloring is called out as an ADD/ADHD risk in children. Although it would simply be great if companies weren’t using GMO ingredients to begin with, at least when mandatory labeling laws are in place, consumers’ right to know is respected; from there, it becomes an element of choice whether or not to consume it. Labeling is a whole colossal topic in and of itself, so I’ll leave it at this for now.


So now that we understand what a GMO is and why it’s undesirable (and even dangerous), let’s discuss what it does or doesn’t mean when something is “non-GMO”. Non-GMO simply means that the item has not been genetically altered as I described above. It’s a good step in the right direction, and a better choice to avoid GMOs everywhere you can.

GMO Labeling

Since GMO labeling is not legally mandated, you’ll rarely GMO ingredients labeled as such. (One new exception is Campbell’s, who will begin putting half-assed, non-descript blurbs like the one shown below on their labels. I think this ultimately is the result of Campbell’s desperately trying to look like they care about consumers’ wants/needs/welfare, which is farcical, but I digress.) Unfortunately, if a product doesn’t specifically identify a typically-GMO ingredient (like corn) as being non-GMO, there’s little doubt it’s GMO. Your Corn Flakes? GMO. That Starbucks soy latte? GMO. You get the picture. 


What can help a consumer sort through the muck though, is the efforts of the Non-GMO Project. You may have noticed these little symbols cropping up like wildfire, and the great GMO debate is the reason why. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of GMOs, so demand is at an all-time high to know what’s in a product. The NGP steps in as a third-party (non-profit) entity to verify and label products that meet the requirements. While the goal is for products to ultimately be entirely GMO-free, the label does not mean that a product is entirely 100% GMO-free, but must meet the threshold of containing <0.9% GMOs. For more on the requirements and verification process, see here.


However, many people confuse “non-GMO” with being automatically safer all-around, or equate them with being organic, which is incorrect. A non-GMO item still can be treated with dangerous synthetic pesticides just as easily as a GMO one, though keep in mind that GMO crops (like corn and soy) tend to be bombarded much, much more. Here’s a really good infographic, courtesy of Food Babe, that makes everything a lot easier to understand.


Organic vs. Conventional

This is a great place to transition to what “organic” means. To be certified organic, a product must meet certain requirements and actually must pay a hefty sum for the right to display a USDA Organic seal. See below for the different ways the logo can apply, and what conditions must be met to display on the product’s packaging.


An important point to remember is that, by definition, an organic item is inherently non-GMO. So, to label something as “organic and non-GMO” is redundant, but you certainly will see it, since many more consumers are starting to look for the Non-GMO Project logo I showed above, and might worry if they don’t see it on an organic product.

However, this isn’t to say that organic items can be written off as “pesticide-free”, because they still do use pesticides – just not synthetic ones. So by all means, continue to wash that produce just in case! I’ve read some interesting articles that allege that some of the “natural” pesticides used by U.S. certified organic farmers aren’t safe either, and many are banned in Europe. That wouldn’t surprise me if it were true, but honestly, other than growing your own produce, buying organic is the next best option. It also helps to buy from local farmers where you can too, since you can learn for yourself what their methods are. (On that note, one of my upcoming blogs is going to explore the costs of buying organic, and will share some of the tips and tricks I like to use.)

Just note, organic refers to absolutely nothing in terms of calories! An organic brownie is still just as much of a calorie bomb as one that isn’t organic. Our bag of organic pretzels is still just that – a bag of pretzels – so it still has to be eaten in moderation. And, ultimately, yes, it’s still technically “processed food”, and it’s still best to consume whole foods in lieu of processed foods where you can, even when eating organic. The real difference, though, comes down to ingredients. No GMOs, no synthetic ingredients, no scary chemicals, etc. (aka less junk to tinker with your body’s weight-regulating hormones and appetite). The ingredient list tends to be way, way shorter, and overall you’re getting something way more “real” and a heckuva lot better for your body.

If a food item is not organic, that means it is conventional. Typically, stores don’t label food as conventional, since that’s the default and organic is the option. Me personally, I think it’s a little bass-ackwards to have to force organic items to take on the additional title. You know what I mean? An apple should be an organic apple by default, not the other way around. Once upon a time, that’s how it was. We need a return to tradition, folks.

A really hot-button debate recently has been whether or not organic food, especially produce, is actually more nutritious than conventional produce. Both sides claim to have evidence weighing in their favor, so the waters are definitely muddied, but I think logic and reason lies on the side of organic being more nutritious. Many of the synthetic pesticides used in conventional farming tend to damage and deplete the soil, so this results in less nutritious food, and those same pesticides can even inhibit a plant’s ability to produce nutrition. Similarly, DNA tinkering done by guys in lab coats has to negatively affect what Mother Nature intended, in my book.

With all of that said, my last word here is to beware of the word “natural” when you buy anything with a label on it. That word has absolutely no legal definition, and its use is not regulated in any way by the FDA or USDA. Companies are more prone now than ever to use it, so beware. A good example of this is when companies treat high fructose corn syrup as “natural” simply because it’s created by unnaturally super sweetening corn syrup, which itself comes from processing corn in ways nature never intended. Real “natural”.

To Sum it All Up

I really hope this helped clear up some of the confusion! As one last little take-away, here is a brief summary of what I discussed:

  1. An organic item is always non-GMO.
  2. A conventional item can be GMO or non-GMO.
  3. Non-GMO does not mean it’s safe from dangerous synthetic pesticides.
  4. Organic does not mean no pesticides. It means no synthetic pesticides.
  5. If a commonly-GMO item (like soy) is not labeled as non-GMO, it’s likely GMO.

I think that covers it for now! Please remember, this is an unbelievably vast topic. There’s definitely some stuff I didn’t hit on because I didn’t want to get too overwhelming in a post meant to be clarifying! So, I highly encourage everyone to do their own research and expand their knowledge of these topics!

Wish you healthier, happier days!


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