Is “GMO” the Way to Go?

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Given that we’ve been talking about organic and raw foods over the past few weeks, I thought it might be a good time to bring up the subject of GMO foods. No, not UFOs, but GMOs. GMO stands for “genetically modified organisms,” and you may or may not realize this, but they’re in about 80% of the packaged foods sitting on your grocery store shelves. It is therefore probably a good idea for you to at least be familiar with what GMOs are and what they might mean for your health.

What Are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms are basically genetically engineered foods. These foods have had lab-produced genes from plants, animals, or viruses added to the existing “gene pool” to make them better. By “better,” I mean that this enhanced food might be more resistant to, say, disease, insects, drought, or heat.

Why Do It?
You may not realize this, but more than 90% of the soy, 85% of the corn, and 88% of cottonseed grown in the US is genetically modified. Potatoes and rice are GM foods, as well. While it sounds almost science fiction–like, the idea of creating new and better kinds of crops really isn’t that new. Farmers have been working on this concept (meaning, creating better foods) for many, many years. Now, scientists have the technology to make this happen.

The benefits of genetic engineering include a heartier crop, or a crop that is able to withstand bacteria, viruses, and fungi (no more potato famines), damage from insects, and that has tolerance to herbicides and pesticides. In addition, GMO foods can be more nutritious than their conventional counterparts — GMO rice grown in Asia contains more zinc and iron than regular rice. Being able to boost the nutrient value of foods is a plus for Third World countries.

GMO benefits may extend beyond crops, too. Animal foods can be produced that are resistant to certain types of illness, such as Mad Cow disease.

The US Department of Energy is on board with GMO foods, claiming that genetically engineered foods are environmentally friendly, as their production conserves energy and water, reduces pollution, and enhances the efficiency of crops. GMO technology can also help ensure that struggling countries are able to provide food for their citizens.

Not So Fast
Not everyone is on board with GMO foods, however. As appealing as they may sound, GMO foods may not be as safe as we think. One of the concerns is that the health effects of GMO foods aren’t really known.

It’s a little unsettling to think what switching out and inserting genes into our food chain might be doing to us. The research hasn’t been done, and funding for this type of research is sadly lacking. The USDA and the FDA face enormous pressure from biotech lobbyists, including lobbyists from the biotech giant Monsanto. Some studies have shown that GMO foods fed to animals affected the size and function of their internal organs, affect their immune systems, and may speed up the aging process. Studies with humans are scarce, but one study showed that pregnant women had traces of insecticide in their blood, possibly from GMO corn.

What else? Playing with food from a technology standpoint could set people up for allergic reactions; for example, if soy genes are inserted into another type of food, it might trigger a reaction in a person who is allergic to soy to begin with.

How Do You Know if a Food Is GMO?
Unfortunately, GMO foods aren’t required to be labeled as such. The FDA isn’t convinced that GMO foods are any different than conventional foods. A poll in 2010 found that most Americans think GMO foods should be labeled, and the FDA is in the process of evaluating a petition submitted by various groups that would require labeling. In the meantime, if you’d prefer to steer clear of GMO foods, here’s what you can do:

• Choose certified organic foods

• Look for foods that have a “Non-GMO Project” seal

• Shop in stores that don’t carry GMO foods, like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s

• Be leery of the “Top 8” GMO foods: corn, soybeans, canola, cottonseed, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, and some zucchini and summer squash

• Buy and eat 100% grass-fed beef

• Buy locally — shop at farmer’s markets or co-ops, for example

• Better yet, grow your own fruits and vegetables

• Check out the free shopping guide at

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