Vegan. Organic. Gluten free. Raw. Foods have a lot of labels these days, which can make shopping seem more overwhelming than inspiring. After all, who wants to feel like they need a glossary to shop for the basics? In this edition of Deciphering The Label we take a look at a label you’ve probably noticed a lot more recently: Non-GMO
The term “GMO” stands for “genetically modified organisms.” What does that mean? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), genetically modified foods are those whose genetic makeup, or DNA, has been altered. To create a genetically modified food, a gene or genes from different organisms may be combined with a variety of desired outcomes, for example; improving yield by making the plants resistant to disease or more tolerant of herbicides. Future modifications could improve the nutritional quality of food or possibly decrease the allergen potential of foods, among other possibilities. This scientific process is also referred to as biotechnology or genetic engineering (GE).
The foods most commonly grown from genetically modified seeds in the United States are soy, corn, canola, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, and squash, according to the Non-GMO Project. These ingredients can be found in an estimated 80 percent of prepackaged foods for sale at your local grocery store. That’s a lot! When you pick up a packaged product and see any of these ingredients listed, there is a good chance they’re genetically modified -- the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated in 2014 approximately 94 percent of soybeans and 93 percent of the corn produced and used in the U.S. was genetically modified.
Genetically modified foods are either restricted or banned in more than 30 countries worldwide.
Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers genetically modified foods to be safe, but the research surrounding the long-term effects of consuming genetically modified foods is still in the beginning stages. For this reason, many people in the food industry have called for mandatory labeling to encourage more consumer transparency while further research is done to determine the safety of long-term ingestion of GMO foods.
As previously mentioned, genetically modified foods can be sold on their own or may appear in the prepackaged foods you purchase. So, if you prefer to only buy foods that are GMO-free these are the labels you should be looking for:
- The first thing to look for when picking up packaged foods is the USDA Organic seal from the USDA National Organic Program. According to the guidelines of this government program, foods labeled as organic cannot be grown or processed using GMO products of any kind. This starts with the seeds through production into any packaged food. All farmers and manufacturers involved in the creation of a packaged food must be compliant with the guidelines of the program in order for a brand to earn the seal.
- The next thing to look for is the seal of the Non-GMO Project. The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit, third party organization that was established as a means to providing information for consumers about GMOs and their usage. Companies may submit their products voluntarily for inspection to see if they’re considered compliant with the organization’s Product Verification Program. The Non-GMO Project team examines all aspects of growth and production from the suppliers to the assembly line and if the product meets their standards the package gets to bear the Non-GMO Project seal.
If a product doesn’t have one or both of these seals, the brand may be in the process of becoming certified organic or having its products verified through the Non-GMO Project.
This is where a little research will come in handy as well. If you have a brand in mind you and your family have been enjoying for some time, sending an inquiry could help you get some answers about where the ingredients inside these packaged foods come from, and if they are seeking to use ingredients from non-GMO sources. If you’re shopping at a local farmers’ market, don’t be afraid to ask questions of your vendors there, as well.
Knowing how to read food packaging empowers you to be a more informed consumer. If you’re interested in serving your family a GMO free diet, now you know to look for the USDA Organic and/or Non-GMO Project seal on a product’s package before you buy.