Should You Go Non-GMO? Here’s What You Need to Know

Non-GMO Foods

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Hit up your local supermarket, and in addition to gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free and dairy-free, you’ll inevitably see labels also declaring certain foods “non-GMO.” If your head is spinning with all these nutrition “don’ts,” well, we don’t blame you. But how much do you really know about what non-GMO means — and whether buying these goods is actually better for you?

“90 percent of canola, 94 percent of soy, and 95 percent of sugar beets grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.”

Seventy percent of Americans don’t want GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, in their food, according to a recent study from Consumer Reports. Furthermore, 92 percent of people say they’d like to see GMO labeling on foods — and manufacturers are slowly starting to listen to that demand.

Whole Foods Market, which plans to require GMO or non-GMO labeling on all foods by 2018, has seen a spike in sales of non-GMO foods throughout the past year, and particularly during October — Non-GMO Month. “The numbers are impressive…there’s a high demand there, and we keep adding more and more of those products,” says Whole Foods spokesperson Kate Lowery.

The trouble is, GMOs are practically everywhere in our food supply. Today, 88 percent of corn, 90 percent of canola and cotton, 94 percent of soy, 95 percent of sugar beets and almost all papaya grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, according to The Non-GMO Project, a non-profit.

But should we really be worried? The science on GMOs seems to consistently indicate that GMO foods are safe for human consumption — though a few studies have argued otherwise. “There was a lot of media attention given to one or two small, very sensational studies that showed draconian effects of feeding GMOs to livestock,” Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D, an animal geneticist and biotechnology expert from the University of California, Davis, says. “But, there are literally hundreds of other studies that showed the exact opposite, in fact, they showed no difference at all.”  

With all the conflicting intel out there surrounding GMOs, it can be difficult to decide where you stand on the subject. Read on to find out whether you should consider going non-GMO — and if it will make a difference in your health.  

GMOs: Harmless…or Health Threat?

GMOs have been in the American food supply since the 1990s, when they were introduced to make foods more resistant to disease or pests, enhance crop growth, or improve the nutritional quality of foods, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Despite the fact that the FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Environmental Protection Agency say they’re all working together to ensure the safety of genetically modified crops, consumers remain suspicious.

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Opponents of GMOs have been vocal about calling out their potential risk factors. Organizations like Earth Open Source have published GMO papers claiming that genetically engineered foods can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious, increase pesticide use, and create herbicide-tolerant “superweeds” that plague crops and harm soil.

Yet, some of the scientific research arguing that GMOs are dangerous has been questionable, at best. A 2012 study gained national attention after claiming that GMO-fed rats developed horrific, cancerous tumors. Yet, the study was later recalled by the journal that published it, due to its small sample size, which rendered the study’s results inconclusive. Furthermore, the breed of rats used in the study is notoriously susceptible to tumors, making the study’s claims weak — and adding to the public’s confusion over GMOs.

Yet, many scientists remain convinced that GMOs are harmless, says Van Eenennaam. “The scientific data on the safety of GMOs is nearly unanimous,” says Van Eenennaam. “Every single major scientific society in the world has said there’s no unique safety concerns — the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, The American Association for the Advancement of Science. It’s literally everybody — there are one or two scientists who disagree, yes, but they are super outliers,” she says.

This fall, Van Eenennaam conducted a review in the Journal of Animal Science, examining 29 years of data on livestock health, to provide a comprehensive assessment as to whether GMO-fed animals experienced ill health effects. 

Her results: There were no differences between GMO-fed animals and non-GMO fed animals, either in terms of their health, or the composition of the milk, eggs or protein they produced. “There are literally billions of animals every year eating GMO feed almost exclusively, and we’re not seeing these health concerns — logically we’d see it if it was,” Van Eenennaam says.

What’s more, Van Eenennaam argues that GE crops have benefits that are often overlooked. “What would be used if we weren’t using GE seeds? What we were doing before was using more toxic herbicides and weeds were developing resistance to those, too.” 

How to Tell If GMOs Are in Your Food

These days, the battle over GMOs seems to revolve more around consumer’s desire for transparency rather than specific health concerns.

Whole Foods Market has been one of the most vocal supporters of non-GMO labeling, and they say it stems from their commitment to promoting organic foods, and keeping customers in-the-know about what they’re eating. “The history of Whole Foods is that we’ve been an advocate for organic since our inception,” says Lowery. “Being the first grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency, we figured this was a way to give shoppers what they need to make informed choices.”

RELATED: What’s Really in Tofurky and Other Vegetarian Turkey?

Other brands are not far behind, with Cheerios cereal, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, Balance Bars and Ben & Jerry’s making recent efforts to reduce or eliminate GMOs in their goods, too.

So how can you tell if your groceries are non-GMO? Follow these easy guidelines:

1. Look for Organic Labels.
Guess what: Any food with a USDA certified organic label is also non-GMO. Groups like the Non-GMO Project offer additional testing of high-risk ingredients, like corn, at critical points throughout the manufacturing process. “If you have a tortilla chip and the ingredients are salt, corn and corn oil — and it’s labeled 100 percent organic — then it comes from crops that were not genetically modified,” Lowery says.

RELATED: The Dirty Dozen: What to Buy Organic

2. Know Where Your State Stands
Shoppers in Connecticut, Maine and Vermont will be spotting GMO labels on all foods sold in state soon — they recently passed laws requiring it. Other states including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have active legislation pending on the subject. Yet, voters in Oregon and Colorado rejected labeling when it hit ballots this November. Similar measures have also been rejected in California and Washington state. One possible reason: Food corporations spent more than $100 million to run ads in the weeks before the vote explaining why GMO labeling might not be necessary, according to the non-profit Center for Food Safety.

3. Spot the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal
More than 21,000 products have been awarded a Non-GMO Project Verified Seal from the Non-GMO Project, whose goal is to educate consumers about GMOs, preserve and build non-GMO food options, and provide people with verified non-GMO food choices. The label indicates that a food is produced according to the “best practices” for avoiding GMO contamination laid out by the Non-GMO Project.

4. Don’t Get Duped  
Found a food claiming to be GMO-free? There’s no such thing, according to the Non-GMO project, which asserts that due to cross-contamination, it is legally impossible to claim that a product is ever truly GMO free. For now, the gold standard will be the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal printed on food labels.  

RELATED: How to Buy Gluten-Free Without Getting Duped

5. Shop Smart
Yes, GMOs are avoidable in some produce, like corn or soy. But the vast majority of foods aren’t genetically modified at all. “There are no GMO apples in the U.S.,” Lowery says. “When I think about the crops that could be in the produce department, really the only things you could have that contain GMOs are Hawaiian papaya, yellow summer crooked neck squash, zucchini, sweet summer corn and fresh edamame, and that’s it.”

For other grocery store staples, simply buy organic for any products containing cottonseed oil, soy, soybean oil, soy lethicin, canola oil, sugar beets or corn. Sugar beets, which are different from the beets you might find in your salad, are grown for sugar production and most contain GMOs. Make sure your bag of the sweet stuff is made with cane sugar if you want to avoid GMOs.  And, as always, it’s advisable to eat clean when you can. “Where it’s difficult is with multi-ingredient products, with more than say 10 ingredients. That’s where you have to look carefully for GMOs,” Lowery says.  

Will you be avoiding GMOs? Tell us how you feel in the comments section.