The amount of health claims on food labels today is nothing short of overwhelming. From “fat-free” to “low-sodium” to “non-GMO,” it’s hard to decipher what these claims mean.
What are GMOs?
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. As its name indicates, a GMO is any plant, animal, or bacteria whose DNA is genetically modified in a laboratory.
Genetic engineers take a desired gene from one organism’s DNA and recombine it with the DNA on the organism they wish to change. As a result, the organism will express the new beneficial gene.
Here are the three ways genetic engineering occurs:
- Selective breeding (two strains are bred together)
- RNA interference (undesirable genetic traits are inactivated)
- Transgenics (implanting one gene into another organism)
Why genetically modify an organism?
You may be wondering why genetic engineers would want to change a plant or animal’s DNA in the first place. Genetically engineering crops provides many benefits to the producer, the environment, and the consumer. Some of these benefits include:
- Disease-resistant crops
- Crops that can tolerate herbicides and pesticides, or don’t require them at all
- Faster growing crops and animals
- Crops that require fewer resources (water and fertilizer)
- More nutritious food
- Better tasting food
- Food with a longer shelf life
- Medicinal foods that could be used as vaccines or other medicine
Ultimately, using GMOs helps farmers overcome obstacles to meet the increasing population’s demand for food. By overcoming these obstacles, farmers can produce enough crops consistently and conserve natural habitats by making their existing land area more usable.
Reasons to avoid GMOs
Despite their many perceived benefits, some scientists and doctors are still hesitant about GMOs. The problem is that there is not enough research proving that GMOs are not harmful to the long-term health of humans, animals, or the environment.
Some people are concerned that the genetic changes in these organisms they are eating could negatively interact with their DNA. However, genetic mutations that result from eating GMO foods is not possible.
One downside of GMOs is their effect on the environment. Using GMOs to make crops resistant to ‘bad’ bugs also hurts ‘good’ bugs, and therefore, the greater cycle of nature. This brings us to the point that some people struggle with - the use of GMOs for ethical reasons.
In the end, this form of biotechnology has not been researched enough for scientists to say we should be avoiding GMOs confidently. As the nutritional value of GMO and non-GMO foods is still similar, the safer option may be to eat non-GMO foods until more data is found.
How to buy non-GMO foods and dietary supplements
Interpreting product labels may seem confusing - it is hard to decipher which are non-GMO, especially since GMO labeling isn’t mandatory. If you are looking to buy non-GMO, here are a few tips:
1. Buy organic
Although non-GMO does not equal organic, most organic ingredients are non-GMO and pesticide-free!
2. Look for non-GMO verification
IGEN, a certification program by Certifications by Nutrasource, helps increase consumer awareness about GMOs. IGEN certifies products that claim to be non-GMO as “Non-GMO Tested” or “Non-GMO Certified.” IGEN stands for the International Genetically Modified Organism Evaluation and Notification Program.
IGEN certifies a variety of food ingredients and herbal supplements by ensuring that they don’t contain any GMO genes or GMO proteins. Learn more about the IGEN certification program here.
3. Watch for additives
Be sure to check the ingredients list for GMO additives carefully. The four most common GMO crops are corn, soy, canola, and sugar.
Unfortunately, there are a few unreliable claims that might trick you into buying food that contains GMOs. For example, claims like “natural” hold no real meaning when it comes to GMOs.
4. Eat local produce or grow your own food
Another way to avoid GMOs is to eat locally produced food or food you have grown yourself. Check out our blog on local produce to see the additional benefits of purchasing your produce in-season and from local farmers.
GMOs appear to bring economic, environmental and health benefits, however, there is no scientific consensus around their safety - until then, be cautious with your GMO purchases.