What exactly is GMO?

gmo-heroGMO’s (genetically modified organisms) are plants or animals whose cells have been inserted with a gene from an unrelated species in order to take on specific characteristics. For example, plants might be genetically engineered to develop a resistance against insects or to increase nutrients. GMOs have been part of our food for the past 20 years.

Are GMOs safe?

Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe. In more than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs. In the U.S., the government has approved GMOs based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale. 

How common are GMOs?

In the U.S., GMOs are in as much as 80% of conventional processed food and more than 40 types of plants have been genetically modified worldwide. The most common genetically modified plants are corn, canola, soybean and cotton. Others include papayas, chrysanthemums, poplars, & spruce, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. GMOs have also been used in tobacco, rice, cranberries, raspberries and walnuts.

How can I tell if my food contains GMOs?

Currently, food manufacturers are not required to label whether their products contain GMOs, however, are prohibited in organic products. “This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients,” according to the USDA. But read the label carefully because if something says “organic” on it does not mean that it does not contain any GMO’s. In fact, it can still contain up to 30%, so be sure the labels say 100% organic. If you live in Europe, avoiding GM foods is easier since laws require labelling. In the US and Canada, however, food manufacturers are not required to label if their food is genetically modified or not.  Organizations, like the Non-GMO Project, list products verified to be GMO-free and you can also download the Non-GMO Shopping Guide app.

Some companies are voluntarily moving away from GMOs. General Mills announced its iconic cereal brand Cheerios will no longer contain ingredients with genetically modified organisms, fast-food chain Chipotle has committed to removing GMO ingredients from its menu, and Whole Foods Market said by 2018 it will label all GMO products at its U.S. and Canadian stores. 

Products (and their derivatives) most likely to be genetically modified (GM): 

Soybeans: Gene taken from bacteria (Agrobacterium sp. strain CP4) and inserted into soybeans to make them more resistant to herbicides

Corn: There are two main varieties of GE corn. One has a Gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis inserted to produce the Bt toxin, which poisons Lepidoteran (moths and butterflies) pests. There are also several events which are resistant to various herbicide. Present in high fructose corn syrup and glucose/fructose which is prevalent in a wide variety of foods in America. Because of this, it is recommended to buy organic corn, popcorn, corn chips only.

Rapeseed/Canola: Gene added/transferred to make crop more resistant to herbicide.

Sugar beets: Gene added/transferred to make crop more resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

Cotton: engineered to produce Bt toxin. The seeds are pressed into cottonseed oil, which is a common ingredient in vegetable oil and margarine.

Dairy: Cows injected with GE hormone rBGH/rBST; possibly fed GM grains and hay.

Sugar: In 2012 the FDA approved GMO Beet Sugars to be allowed to be sold on the market under the name “sugar”. For example, when we buy foods like “All Natural” Breyer’s Ice Cream, we can’t even know for sure that we are actually eating regular natural cane sugar. If you see “cane sugar” there’s a good chance it’s not GMO. This is one of the biggest frustrations with labelling, as sugar is in so many things, and we might be avoiding food that POSSIBLY has GMO sugar, but really does not.

Baked goods: Often has one or more of the common GM ingredients in them. Why do we need corn or soy in our bread, snacks or desserts? It’s hard to find mixes to use as well. Some brands avoid GMs, find one you like and try to stick with it. Organic is one option, learning how to cook brownies, etc., from scratch with your own organic oils is another. 

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How to help avoid GMO products:


Recognize fruit and vegetable label numbers:

  • If it is a 4-digit number, the food is conventionally produced.
  • If it is a 5-digit number beginning with an 8, it is GM. However, do not trust that GE foods will have a PLU identifying it as such, because PLU labeling is optional.
  • If it is a 5-digit number beginning with a 9, it is organic. 

Recognize meat sources:

  • Purchase beef that is 100% grass-fed. Most cattle in the U.S. are grass-fed, but spend the last portion of their lives in feedlots where they may be given GM corn, the purpose of which is to increase intramuscular fat and marbling. If you’re looking to stay away from GM0s, make sure the cattle were 100% grass-fed or pasture-fed (sometimes referred to as grass-finished or pasture-finished).
  • The same applies to meat from other herbivores such as sheep as there is also the slight possibility that the animals were fed GM alfalfa, although this is less likely if you buy meat locally.
  • With non-ruminants like pigs and poultry that cannot be 100% grass-fed, it’s better to look for meat that is 100% organic.


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