The food items we place in our shopping basket, chop into salads, and pack into lunch boxes each has a history that goes far beyond what most consumers are aware of. Today, the food products we choose to buy and consume not only affect our bodies and those of our family and friends, but the economy and the environment at large. Take a stroll through the meat or dairy aisles and you’re bound to see an array of labels and classifications including the terms “organic,” “grass-fed,” and “non-GMO.”

Food Labels & Classifications 101

Aside from being buzzwords in the modern lexicon, what do these terms actually mean? And, is it necessary that we choose foods that bear these labels? Below is a rundown on what you need to know about these classifications and the impact they have on you and the world at large.

• Organic

No matter who you are or what you eat, there’s a good chance someone, at some point, has told you to “choose organic.” Although the definition of organic farming differs by country, and has developed over time, the basic principles behind the practice include:

- improving water and soil quality (through plant rotation, maintaining green waste);

- avoiding synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers;

- promoting natural and safe practices for livestock;

- avoiding genetically modified organisms to improve yield or fight pests.

These principles represent only a few tenets of organic farming, but they're perhaps the most vital. In essence, organic farming ensures that crops are naturally derived and maintained, without the use of harsh chemicals, additives, and modified organisms. For you, the end consumer, this means foods that are devoid of, or contain much lower levels of, heavy metals, bacteria, pesticides, and other unsavory substances.

Just by reading this, there are some obvious advantages to organic. No one wants to ingest harmful chemicals, and we all want to promote greater soil health and vitality. This latter feature is of particular importance. Due to global agricultural practices ravaging and eroding the soil, some researchers suggest that we could run out of arable soil in around half a century. Not only does this affect us, but all manner of other animals and organisms as well. With organic farming, soil health is maintained with greater importance.

• Non-GMO

This is where things get a little complex; organic food is considered non-GMO, but not all non-GMO is considered organic. GMO simply refers to a “genetically modified organism” created via genetic engineering. The main reasons we have GMOs are to provide greater yield, better pest resistance, and more assurance of a successful crop. 

Fundamentally, non-GMO foods are those that:

- are not created in a lab setting;

- have not been fortified to repel certain pest species;

- have not been fortified to deliver greater yield or a better-looking end product.

Unlike organic farming, the exact health and safety issues or benefits of GMOs are yet unclear. While there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that eating genetically engineered food measurably hurts humans, there are similar agricultural concerns to non-organic farming.

• Grass-Fed

This mostly applies to the meat and dairy-eaters; grass-fed neither implies organic or non-GMO practices, but has some important features that intersect with both. There is no official USDA definition of grass-fed at present, but as the name suggests, grass-fed products like beef and butter allow livestock (in this case, cattle) to graze on natural foods like grass and alfalfa instead of grain and other substances. This in turn improves the health of the cow, and presumably, the final product. 

With beef cattle, grass-fed product contains:

- more healthy omega-3 fats than grain-fed;

- less monounsaturated fats;

- more of vitamins A and E;

- more antioxidants;

- potentially beneficial conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).

So, What Should I Eat?

While we wouldn’t say this is a “trick” question, the answer does contain multitudes. On the one hand, there are some clear benefits to organics, with far fewer synthetic chemicals and greater soil health to look forward to. Non-GMOs, while less clear in their effects on human health, also contribute to less herbicide use and better soil health. And with grass-fed products, the benefits for both livestock and humans are measurable. 

So, what is one to do? Like anything else in life, the answer is to prioritize. As mentioned above, just because you buy non-GMO doesn’t mean it’s organic or grass-fed. As a result, it’s up to you to weigh all the environmental and health-related factors at hand. With that said, buying any of these products—organic, grass-fed, or non-GMO—is certainly bound to sustain less of an adverse effect on your health and the environment than the alternative, although to what extent, we’re not sure at present. 

Furthermore, the impact of these practices on laborers and small farms—both positive and negative—is not insignificant by any stretch. After all, organic certification is expensive; many small farms run natural, responsible, and synthetic-free protocol, but are not technically allowed to call themselves organic since they do not have the certification.

The Access Issue: What If I Can’t Find or Afford Organic?

Then there’s the access issue. Farming and grocery store politics have a lot to do with availability and socioeconomic status. Although we’d all like to shell-out for organic every time, not everyone can purchase these pricier options on a daily basis. Moreover, not every local store has high-quality options to bear.

There’s So Much More to Learn

We barely “unearthed” the discussion of food and farming classifications in our review, but it’s clear to see that this is a very complex matter that goes far beyond the label. With global agricultural practices and personal/public health playing significant roles in what we consume, the onus is on us to scrutinize our behavior and find ways to better ourselves and the world around us!