Organic or GMO? Experts explain food lingo

Are food terms and lingo confusing you?
calendar icon 10 May 2023
clock icon 5 minute read

Experts from the Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center at Oklahoma State University clarified some of the most common references.


The difference between conventional (non-organic) and organic food involves how it is grown and manufactured. While both foods follow regulations and guidelines to make them equally safe to consume, organic food regulations are different.

“Organic-produced foods rely on the use of natural substances and methods throughout the entire food production process, while conventionally grown foods allow for the additional usage of approved synthetic substances and methods,” said Renee Albers-Nelson, FAPC milling and baking specialist. “Because there are many opinions of what natural is, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the National Organic Program, a federal regulatory program to develop and enforce federal standards for organically produced products sold in the U.S.”

The USDA NOP inspects farms and food manufacturing facilities to approve their use of the USDA Organic seal. There are four types of USDA Organic claims that can be made, and they are defined by the USDA NOP as follows:

  1. 100% organic — used to label any product that contains 100% organic ingredients.
  2. Organic — any product that contains a minimum of 95% organic ingredients; up to 5% of ingredients may be non-organic.
  3. Made with an organic item — product contains at least 70% organically produced ingredients.
  4. Specific organic ingredient listings — specific organic ingredients may be listed in the ingredient statement of products containing less than 70% organic contents.


In August 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an official definition of gluten-free. The regulations must be fully met for a product to say gluten-free on the label.

Gluten-free is a food that is naturally gluten-free or does not contain an ingredient that is:

  1. A gluten-containing grain (wheat, rye, barley, spelt or some crossbreed of these grains), or
  2. Derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten (wheat flour), or
  3. Derived from a gluten-containing grain and that has been processed to remove gluten (wheat starch) if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million or more gluten in the food.
  4. Additionally, any unavoidable presence of gluten in the food must be less than 20 parts per million.

“Meeting the requirements of gluten-free is important for people with celiac disease, a life-threatening illness if they consume gluten,” Albers-Nelson said. “Label claims such as gluten-free, free of gluten, without gluten and no gluten are acceptable as long as the FDA gluten-free requirements are met. Placing gluten-free on a label is voluntary. People with celiac disease should read and study food ingredient statements.”

Also, Albers-Nelson said the term gluten-friendly is not a term recognized by the FDA and has no official definition.

“It does not mean a food is free of gluten or safe for consumers who suffer from celiac disease,” she said.


According to the FDA, GMO stands for a genetically modified organism and is used to describe a plant, animal or microorganism that has had its genetic material, DNA, altered with technology. Modification includes the transfer of specific DNA from one organism to another.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the FDA are responsible for guaranteeing that biotech products are safe as a food for humans and animals as well as the environment.

With the passage of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law in 2018, as of Jan. 1, 2022, manufacturers, importers and retailers with annual receipts of $2.5 million or more will be required to disclose to the consumer if a food or ingredient is bioengineered. The USDA defines a bioengineered food as one that contains detectable genetic material modified through lab techniques. A bioengineered food cannot be created through conventional breeding or be found in nature. Approved methods of label disclosure are guided by the NBFDS.

USP Verified

The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention was founded in 1820 in Washington, D.C., as a nonprofit scientific organization that develops and disseminates quality standards for medicines and other related substances such as dietary supplements. It does not have any law enforcement power. USP Verified is a voluntary program for manufacturers. Audits are conducted and if a product receives the USP Verified mark, the following requirements are met:

  1. The manufacturer follows FDA Good Manufacturing Practices.
  2. The product contains the ingredients listed on the label in the correct amounts and potency.
  3. Does not contain harmful contaminants.
  4. Will break down and release into the body within a specified amount of time.


The description “allergen free” is not a recognized statement by the FDA and has no regulatory basis. The usage of this term implies the food does not contain any of the eight allergens listed under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act — milk, eggs, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. Also, sesame will be added to the major allergen list beginning Jan. 1, 2023.

“Consumers can be allergic to many other ingredients or foods,” Albers-Nelson said. “Implying a food is ‘allergen free’ is good marketing but too broad of a statement to make, implying that nothing present will cause anyone an allergic response.”


The paleo diet is a reference to the Paleolithic, the “Stone Age” or caveman period of history. The diet’s theory is that humans have moved too far away from what they assume their human ancestors ate — meat from hunted animals, fish and vegetables — and the result is an increase in chronic diseases. Followers of the paleo diet do not consume grains, dairy products, legumes and sugar. Instead, they focus on meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and healthy fats.


A ketogenic diet, also known as keto, encourages the consumption of high fats, moderate proteins and low carbohydrates. Carbohydrates serve as the primary source of energy in body tissues in the form of glucose. When glucose availability is not present or very low, ketogenesis is initiated to provide an alternate energy source from fat in the form of ketones. Ketogenesis reduces the body’s need to stimulate fat and glucose storage.

“In the short-term, the keto diet is effective in weight loss,” Albers-Nelson said. “But it’s not considered a long-duration diet due to health concerns.”

Vegetarian versus vegan

Other frequently used food terms include vegetarian, which is a person who excludes meat, poultry, fish, seafood, insect or animal by-products, such as gelatin or stock/fat from animals, from his or her diet. A vegan diet is a continuation of the vegetarian diet. Vegans do not consume dairy products and eggs, and they also don’t use any animal byproducts for food, clothing, or other purposes.

Janice Hermann, an OSU Extension specialist in nutritional sciences, said understanding terms and labels benefits the consumer.

Oklahoma State University

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