As the GMO (genetically-modified organism) conversation begins to heat up, and more states introduce bills that would require the labeling of GMOs, I wanted to throw together a quick reference for those of us looking to avoid them in our diet more promptly.
So what exactly are genetically-modified organisms? The Non-GMO Project defines them as “plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants and animals.” They continue, “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.”
So, how can we avoid GMOs? I was recently speaking to a doctor (read: dentist) about my intent to tackle the issue, and his immediate response was an astounding, “Oh, that’s impossible here!” Well, while it is certainly harder here in the States than in other, perhaps less corrupt, regions of the world, I assure you that it’s possible! Let’s take a look at some of the things we can do…
Easy enough, right? USDA National Organic Standards prohibit the use of genetically-modified organisms, so this is a great way to identify foods without them. They say, “To meet the 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.”
Be Mindful of Additives
Many common additives are gleaned from GMO, and should be avoided when trying to maintain an organic diet. Here are some substances you’ll want to be wary of:
- Baking Powder
- Malt Syrup
- Caramel Color
- Xanthan Gum
- Stearic Acid
- Modified Food Starch
- Citric Acid
- Mono and Diglycerides
- Lactic Acid
Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
While you should specifically be looking to avoid the artificial sugar substitute aspartame (which goes by the trade names of NutraSweet, AminoSweet, and Equal), it should be noted that if the food contains any artificial sweetener you’re likely going to be getting GMO.
Get Certified Organic Dairy
You’ll want to look for dairy products (anything from yogurt and cheese, to butter and ice cream) that are certified organic. Also, if not labelled specifically as “No rBGH,” which is recombinant bovine growth hormone (sometimes also called rBST), the probability of it containing GMO is high.
Check the PLU Code
Wait… What? The PLU (or Price Look-Up) code is the numerical code found on those little stickers on your produce that usually go unnoticed by consumers (that is, unless you’re placing them on the back of your friend’s head at lunch). Here’s what you should be looking for:
- Five-digit PLU codes that begin with a “9” are certified organic.
- Avoid PLU codes that begin with an “8,” as these are genetically-modified.
- Four-digit PLU codes are “conventional,” so while not technically always GMO, they can contain pesticides.
Avoid Corn, Canola, Cottonseed, and Soy
This is where things can become tricky, as nearly every processed food found in the average American grocery store these days contains one of these four ingredients, in one form or another. Unless specified as organic, food containing corn, canola, cottonseed, or soy are likely GMO. Here are some ingredients you should look out for:
- High-fructose Corn Syrup
- Soybean Oil
- Canola Oil
- Food Starch
- Textured Vegetable Protein
- Soy Protein
- Soy Lecithin
Many of these ingredients go by several different names, so your best bet, again, is to look for certified organic versions, rather than scouring labels filled with jumbles of words none of us can even pronounce.
Look for the Non-GMO Project Seal
The Non-GMO Project is “the only organization offering independent verification of testing and GMO controls for products in the U.S. and Canada.” I’ve been purchasing products with this seal for some time now, assuming that I’d be getting a completely GMO-free product. In some cases, that might not exactly be true. Their website tells us, “Unfortunately, ‘GMO free’ and similar claims are not legally or scientifically defensible due to limitations of testing methodology. In addition, the risk of contamination to seeds, crops, ingredients and products is too high to reliably claim that a product is ‘GMO free.’ The Project’s claim offers a true statement acknowledging the reality of contamination risk, but assuring the shopper that the product in question is in compliance with the Project’s rigorous standard.”
So, while this is surely a good bet (and better than trying to navigate a nutrition label yourself), it should be noted that you might not always be getting a 100% GMO-free product.
In addition, the Non-GMO Project has a list (albeit short, though hopefully growing) of Verified Restaurants.
Utilize the Non-GMO Shopping Guide
The Non-GMO Shopping Guide is an incredible resource for anyone looking to avoid GMOs. Run by the Institute for Responsible Technology, the Shopping Guide offers a plethora of lists to use in non-GMO shopping, options for dining out, downloadable pocket shopping guides, and apps for your smart phone. This is truly a great resource!
So, we see that we certainly have options! There are plenty of resources out there ripe for the picking, thanks to the tireless work of many organizations and activists that care about our health and food freedom. Here’s to hoping for a GMO-free future via legislation that is popping up all over the country, but for now, know that you have choices!