Explaining food buzzwords: A guide to informed grocery shopping

By Aneesh Chatterjee

Posted on October 25, 2021
grocery shopping
Walking down grocery aisles, food items with labels like “organic,” “all-natural,” “gluten-free,” and “non-GMO” are a common sight. These items are generally priced higher than products without these labels. Buying food with these labels might be considered healthier, but what do they actually mean? More importantly, are they worth the extra money? In this article, you’ll find a brief overview of the most popular labels, so you can make more informed shopping choices and budget your groceries better.

What are GMOs?

A GMO (or genetically modified organism) is simply any kind of organism—including crops and produce—of which the genetic code, or DNA, has been changed in some way. The idea of modifying crops to improve their traits is definitely not new; it’s been around for over 8000 years, and is one of humanity’s oldest practices.

GMOs are used to increase crop yield (so that more food is farmed), and make crops resistant to insects, reducing the need for insecticides and pesticides. They’re used to improve the quality of food grown in farms, and even make food more nutritious, potentially improving the diets of malnourished people around the world.
farm equipment in field
GMOs make crops resistant to herbicides and viruses, increase essential vitamins and other nutrients, and grow more food for an increasing global population.

Are GMOs bad for you?

Since the 1990s, GMOs have been publicly criticized, spreading mass panic across the world when people learned that their food was being genetically changed. A study on misinformation in science, published in the Cultures of Science journal in 2019, found that much of this fear was based on false rumors of GMOs causing certain diseases like cancer. Other rumors claimed that politicians and corporate leaders avoided eating GM food. These are only some of the baseless rumors that gave GMOs a bad reputation. Of course, there is no evidence that GMOs cause any harm to our health. Many studies conducted over decades have shown that GMOs are just as safe to eat as non-GMO products.

Why are non-GMOs so popular?

However, because of the public backlash, non-GMO products have gained popularity. The price tag of non-GMO foods is higher because they’re far more expensive to produce. GMO farming lets farmers use genetically modified source ingredients (like seeds), but non-GMO farmers have to specifically buy un-modified source ingredients, and constantly make sure they’re not in contact with GM products. The increased labor, constant screening, and getting organic certification for their crops, all makes the process of bringing non-GMO products to grocery stores more expensive.

In short,non-GMO products aren’t more expensive because they’re healthier; they cost more because it’s harder to produce them. When it comes to health, there is no difference between GMO and non-GMO products, in terms of their effects on your body. While non-GMO farmers do use different kinds of pesticides when needed, none of them (including those used on GMO crops) pose any threat to human health.

What does “organic” mean?

The first thing to remember is, of course, that organic products are non-GMO, as GMO ingredients are banned in organic agriculture. However, there are differences between the organic and non-GMO labels.
The organic label means that the product is free from harmful chemicals, antibiotics, banned pesticides, and contact with GMO products. The non-GMO label means that the people producing these products have made sure that contact with GMOs was avoided in every step of the production process. If anyone’s interested in avoiding GMOs, both organic and non-GMO products provide that assurance.

What does “all-natural” mean?

Unlike the previous labels, “all-natural” is not as clear in its meaning, even if it does let companies raise their prices. In Canada, “natural” labels are only allowed when the food product in question doesn’t have anything added to it. This includes vitamins, artificial flavors, and other additives. “Natural” products also can’t have anything removed from them aside from water).
watering crops
However, “natural” is valid as long as the product isn’t significantly changed with artificial colors, flavors, and additives. This means animal products raised with antibiotics can still be labeled as “all-natural.” Snack foods claiming “all-natural flavors” in their ingredients list, can also have this label even if they’re no different from a duplicate product without it. This lets companies charge more for a product than their competitors, simply because they market their products as “all-natural.”

The “natural” label is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is one of the world’s leading authorities which ensure the safety of biological products, medicine and other consumer products. Because of this, “natural” products could very well contain hormones, GMOs, highly processed ingredients, and vague mentions of “natural flavors” with no elaboration. Unlike the non-GMO and organic labels, the natural label doesn’t have a strict set of guidelines—so companies can use it however they want. Seeing a product advertised as all-natural is absolutely no guarantee of better quality, healthier traits, or ethically sourced ingredients.

Should you bother with “gluten-free?”

“Gluten-free” is on many peoples’ lists when seeking a healthy diet. Gluten is found in grains like barley, rye, wheat and triticale, malt, wheat starch, and brewer’s yeast. More generally, carb-heavy foods like noodles, pasta, breads, cakes, crackers, pancakes, flour-thickened gravies and sauces, and other grain-based dishes are high in gluten.

Can anyone go on a gluten-free diet? Yes, but perhaps they shouldn’t. This diet is mainly for people suffering from celiac disease. Patients of celiac disease suffer from an immune response when they eat gluten, which attacks and damages their small intestine.

A similar but less severe condition, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, also shows the same symptoms of celiac disease such as constipation, abdominal pain, foggy mental state, and diarrhea. Gluten ataxia is also a gluten-triggered condition which causes nerve and muscle control issues. People with wheat allergies also opt for this diet.

The gluten-free diet is very strict, and restricts the consumption of a long list of everyday foods. It’s often low in necessary fiber, iron, and folic acid. Some gluten-free foods are also higher in fats, sugars, and salts.
woman shopping for bread
The common misconception that a gluten-free diet is healthier is arguably false, as it can damage your health by causing deficiencies. Unless you suffer from celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten ataxia, or specific allergies, don’t waste your money and time shopping for a gluten-free diet.

Hopefully, these points have cleared up some popular marketing terms for you. These labels can drastically affect the price, so learning about them can help you make better choices when shopping for groceries and managing your budget.

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