Genetically modified organism (GMO) is a term used to describe plants or animals altered via genetic engineering to achieve a certain beneficial trait, such as resistance to disease or tolerance of pesticides. Examples include fish genes injected into strawberries to protect the fruit from freezing and dairy cows injected with the genetically engineered hormone rBGH to increase milk production. And virtually all plant GMOs are genetically engineered to withstand direct application of herbicides like glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup.
In a recent survey, nearly 9 out of 10 scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science say GMOs are ‘generally safe’ to eat. But I’m still not convinced I agree. Should we consume GMOs without worry? Are they OK in moderation or should we avoid them altogether? The verdict is still out on the potential health impact on humans such as digestive, immune and reproductive disorders. I thought a brief overview is in order.
Let’s start with the basics. Changes to genes aren’t necessarily a bad thing. They happen in nature. In fact, no matter what’s on our menu, it is not exactly the same as what we grew hundreds or thousands of years ago.
Bits of DNA, called genes, are responsible for all sorts of characteristics and traits in every living thing, from height to how certain cells work. Useful traits help the plants and animals with them survive or thrive better than ones without them, so they get passed along and eventually become common.
Our ancestors sped up the process when they saved the seeds of cream-of-the-crop plants to grow the next time, and the next, and the next. That’s what turned small bunches of tiny kernels on tall grass 10,000 years ago into the big ears of juicy corn on the cob we have today.
So food modification is not a recent development. But do you know which foods are most likely to be, or contain ingredients that are genetically engineered today? Up to 80% of our processed foods contain ingredients derived from genetically modified crops—namely, corn, soy, canola and sugar beets. Chances are your pantry has more than a few GMO-containing foods. The topic of GMOs is particularly important to the gluten-free population, who often rely on corn and soy as dietary staples. And dairy products, eggs and meat, unless organic, may indirectly contain GMOs through animals fed GMO corn and soy feed.
What do you need to know to make good choices for your health?
Although companies are not required to put warning labels on GMOs, companies can opt to boast when their products are GMO-free. The Non-GMO Project is working to label products that have been scrupulously tested and are verified NOT to contain genetically modified material. The pretty little butterfly label is your best indication that the product in your hand doesn’t contain GMOs. Through a third-party verification process, the products are tested and audited to maintain their standing. Other products sometimes say that they do not contain GMOs. While this may be true, the Non-GMO Project Verified seal is earned through rigorous testing, and you can feel confident that foods bearing this seal are free of genetically modified ingredients. (You can find a list of 1000 non-GMO foods here.
Buy Organic When Possible
Another label to look for is USDA Certified Organic. The use of genetic engineering or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is 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. To meet USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMOs and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances, such as GMOs, from farm to table.
It is best to seek out organic produce in season, when it’s more plentiful and less expensive. Check out local farmer’s markets and follow the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list. Produce on this list tests higher in pesticide levels than other produce, so you can avoid the biggest offenders.
The Dirty Dozen: Apples, Peaches, Nectarines, Strawberries, Grapes, Celery, Spinach, Sweet Bell Peppers, Cucumbers, Cherry Tomatoes, Snap Peas, White Potatoes, Hot Peppers, Kale.
The following produce is on the ‘Clean Fifteen’ list from EWG.org and these are the fruits and vegetables that you do not necessarily have to buy organic since they tested lowest in pesticides.
The Clean Fifteen: Avocado, Sweet Corn, Pineapples, Cabbage, Frozen Sweet Peas, Onion, Asparagus, Mango, Papaya, Kiwi, Eggplant, Grapefruit, Cantaloupe, Cauliflower, Honeydew.
* A small amount of sweet corn, papaya and summer squash sold in the United States is produced from GE seedstock. Buy organic varieties of these crops if you want to avoid GMO produce.
Improve Your Gut Health
It’s possible that GMOs could impact our gut bacteria and diversity, collectively known as the microbiome. The gut’s immune system is controlled by genes within the biome that, in turn, control inflammation and immune and autoimmune function. Dr. Gerard Mullin, the author of The Gut Balance Revolution, advocates that people take steps to care for their microbiome, especially those with chronic diseases of the digestive system and autoimmune conditions. He recommends avoiding GMOs whenever possible.
Taking care of your own microbiome includes eating fermented and cultured foods such as yogurt, bone broth, kombucha, miso, kimchi, kefir etc. And finding a high-quality probiotic that contains a variety of strains of good bacteria.
Up Your Game When it Comes to Shopping
You need to be aware and make mindful choices when you go to the grocery store these days. I always tell my clients to buy ingredients, instead of food with ingredients. I love to get people back in the kitchen and cooking more often. I know we are all very busy but even if it is a few times a week, that is better than take-out or packaged foods every night!
Keep these things in mind when purchasing food:
- Eat your fruits and veggies – Most fresh produce is non-GMO. Only five common produce items are currently grown commercially from GMO seed: corn, Hawaiian papaya, edamame (soybeans), zucchini and yellow summer squash. Please purchase organic or non-GMO versions of these whenever possible.
- Check the source on meat, eggs and dairy – Milk, cheese, eggs, beef, chicken and pork could all be from animals that were given GMO feed. If concerned, choose organic or non-GMO verified.
- Consider the additives – The five most prevalent GMO crops of corn, canola, soy, cotton and sugar beets end up as additives in all kinds of packaged foods as corn syrup, oil, sugar, flavoring agents, thickeners and other ingredients. Choose organic or non-GMO verified.
- Feel good about frozen – Most frozen fruits and vegetables are non-GMO unless from one of these five high-risk crops: corn, Hawaiian papaya, edamame (soybeans), zucchini and yellow summer squash. Choose organic or non-GMO verified for those five and watch out for other ingredients that might be from a risk crop.
- Go for dry grains, beans, nuts and seeds – Choosing dry beans, grains, nuts and seeds is a great way to go non-GMO. Check out our local health food stores bulk sections. You can buy a cup at a time and try new varieties very inexpensively!
Just by taking a difference perspective on what you are purchasing can go a long way in supporting your overall health.
Read labels, make mindful choices and eat real and fresh food when possible limiting your processed food consumption. All I ask is that you bring awareness to your choices!