How to avoid GMOs

posted in: Food | 13
Papaya tree by Karl Haro von Mogel.
Healthy papaya tree by Karl Haro von Mogel.

I received this question from a student: If someone wants to stop eating GMO food, what should they do?

While I may not agree with most reasons for doing so, I understand that some people want to avoid GMOs. So, here is the straight answer of what you need to do to avoid GMOs at the grocery store, along with some information about the GMO options.

First, I did want to point out that all genetically engineered (GE) foods in the United States has been through a risk assessment “consultation” process with the Food and Drug Administration. Now, on to our guide on how to avoid GMOs…

  • In the produce section:
    • Hawaiian papaya is likely to be engineered for virus resistance, but papaya from other countries is probably not GE.
      • Many non-GE papaya are infected with the papya ringspot virus. The GE papaya contains a small amount of papaya ringspot virus DNA, which serves as a sort of vaccine against the virus. This means that non-GE papayas may actually contain more virus DNA than GE papayas – but both are perfectly safe, since the virus only harms plants.
    • Potatoes have been engineered to not brown when cut or bruised and to accumulate less of a potential carcinogen when cooked (acrylamide). These are not widely available, and are labeled “White Russet”.
    • Apples have been engineered to not brown when cut or bruised but are not available on the market yet, but will be labeled “Arctic”.
      • The non-browning trait can also be found in golden raisins, which have a naturally occurring mutation that causes the same result as the GE trait.
    • Some yellow squash and zucchini has GE virus resistance, but it is not widely used (perhaps 12% of squash acres).
    • Some sweet corn has GE insect resistance or herbicide tolerance, but it is not widely used (perhaps 8% of fresh market sweet corn acres).
    • While most soybean is GE for herbicide tolerance, the varieties of soy used for edamame and tofu are not GE.
      • Most of the soy varieties used for many other vegetarian mock-meats are GE, so a person hoping to avoid GMOs would need to buy organic or “non-GMO” for those products.
    • If a person still is concerned, they can buy organic versions of these listed fruits and vegetables, or they can find products that are labeled as “non-GMO”.
  • In the meat/dairy/eggs section:
    • There are no GE animals on the market.
      • Salmon that has a GE trait to grow to full size faster than non-GE salmon has been approved by the FDA but is not on the market. Based on current politics, will likely will not be on the market for a long time, if ever, despite the evidence for its safety.
      • Researchers in Canada developed a GE pig called Enviropig that would have dramatically reduced phosphorus waste from pork production but the project was literally killed and the GE pigs will likely never make it to market, in part due to anti-GMO sentiment.
    • Many animals are fed GE plants but there is no evidence that an animal fed on GE plants is different from an animal fed non-GE plants.
    • If a person still is concerned, they can buy organic meat/dairy/eggs which are from animals not fed GE plants, or they can find products that are labeled as “non-GMO”.
  • In the processed foods section:
    • This is where things get a little more complicated. Most processed foods contain some ingredients derived from a GE crop. For example, corn syrup is likely to be from GE corn and soy lecithin is likely to be from GE soy.
      • However, highly purified ingredients such as oil and sugar are identical whether they are from GE or non-GE crops. There are no intact genes or proteins in these ingredients, and in many cases even sophisticated chemical analysis can not tell the difference between ingredients made from GE or non-GE crops.
    • If a person is very concerned about avoiding all ingredients that might be derived from a GE crop, that person would need to carefully examine the ingredient list and choose non-GMO or organic for any product that may contain ingredients derived from canola, corn, cotton, soy, and sugar beet.
    • There are also many vitamins, enzymes, and other additives that are made with genetically engineered bacteria or yeasts, or from bacteria or yeasts that are fed GE corn or soy.
      • Once purified, these ingredients are indistinguishable from versions from non-GE sources.
      • Mandatory labeling would not shed light on these ingredients as they are exempt in most GMO labeling bills.
      • Enzymes from GE bacteria and yeast are not permitted in foods labeled as certified organic.
  • What is not GMO?
    • To summarize, there are GE versions of alfalfa, canola, corn (field and sweet, but not popcorn), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans (but not tofu or edamame varieties), sugar beet, yellow squash, and zucchini. GE apples will soon be on the market.
    • There no GE versions on the market of other crops, which means all bananas, wheat, strawberries, broccoli, or anything not listed above are all non-GMO.
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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes! Disclaimer: Anastasia's words are her own and views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of her employer. She is not paid to blog or conduct any social media activities. Mention of a company or product does not indicate endorsement.

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