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How Can You Avoid Genetically Modified Food?

March 23, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

Our guest blogger is Debra Lynn Dadd. Hailed as “The Queen of Green” by the New York Times, Debra Lynn Dadd has been a pioneering consumer advocate since 1982, specializing in products and lifestyle choices that are safer for human health and the environment. She is the author of Home Safe Home.

It is estimated that about 75 percent of processed foods sold in the U.S. contain at least some genetically modified food ingredients. Unlike many other countries, there is no law in the U.S. requiring the labeling of foods that contain GM ingredients. But if you know how to identify which foods are most commonly genetically modified, you can reduce how many GMOs you eat. The best way to avoid GMO products is by buying unprocessed 100% certified organic local whole foods.

Here are some ways to avoid genetically modified foods:

Read the PLU labels. If the five digit PLU number starts with “8,” the food is either genetically modified or genetically engineered. If the five digit PLU number starts with “9,” it’s organic. Also, by watching for the absence of either the 8 or 9, which means the produce is neither organically grown or genetically modified, you can recognize traditionally grown produce. Ensure your produce is not genetically modified by reading the number on the sticker, and by buying 100% certified organic.100% certified organic food is by law never genetically modified!

  • A 4-digit number indicates the food was conventionally grown and may or may not be genetically modified.
  • A 5-digit number beginning with an 8 is a genetically modified food. However, not all GM foods can be identified because PLU labeling is optional.
  • A 5-digit number beginning with a 9 indicates it is organic, and thus a non-GM food.
  • Read more at PLU Codes and How They Can Help Consumers Avoid GM Foods.

Shop at natural food stores. Shopping at a natural or organic food store does not eliminate the possibility of purchasing genetically modified food, although it does increase the possibility of having a wider variety of non-genetically modified fruits and vegetables.

Purchase a share of a Community Support Agriculture (CSA). Basically, a CSA share is purchasing a portion of a farmer’s harvest. The farmer provides you with a basket full of fruits and vegetables every week. Sometimes, a CSA can also offer raw milk and fresh eggs. Some farmers refuse to grow genetically modified fruit and vegetables. Be sure to ask your farmer before you purchase the share!

Buy direct from the farmer. You can ask the farmer at your local farmer’s market if they grow non-GMO produce. If they don’t know, don’t buy. Be aware that most seeds and plants out there today are genetically modified or engineered. Again, by buying100% certified organic we can avoid genetically modifed foods as much as possible.

Grow your own produce. Look in the seed catalog or on the package for the “Non-GMO” label. If there is no label, you can assume that the seed or plant is genetically modified.

  • Here is a list of heirloom seed companies and an amazing source of 100% certified organic, non-GMO, nonhybrid seeds.
  • Urban Gardening: How to Build a Raised bed and Hoop House (video)
  • Start saving a nonhybrid, heirloom seed bank of 100% certified organic seeds!

Buy foods labeled “100% certified organic.” Laws in both the U.S. and Canada do not allow food labels that say “100% certified organic” to contain any genetically engineered food, including animals that have been fed genetically modified feed. Be aware, however, that if the food is simply labeled “organic” it can still contain genetically modified ingredients up to 30%.

Look for the labels “non-GM” or “GMO-free.” These can be hard to find, but if you are able to support manufacturers that produce foods that are not genetically engineered you encourage other manufacturers to follow their lead.

Buy whole, fresh foods rather than processed ones. Foods that you cook and prepare yourself are almost always healthier than anything you can buy ready-made. Cooking healthy food doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming.There are many simple but delicious and healthy meals that you can prepare in less than 30 minutes that do not involve any genetically modified food.

Know which foods and the products that are made from them are most likely to have been the result of genetic engineering. For example:

  • Corn: The ingredient derived from corn that is hardest to avoid is high fructose corn syrup. A huge percentage of processed foods and baked goods contains it, not to mention soda. Any food with a label saying there is corn of any kind in it should be avoided unless it states it is 100% certified organic. Popcorn is an exception, as there is currently no popcorn on the market that is genetically modified.
  • Soybeans: Products made from soybeans include soy flour, soy isolates, soy lecithin, soy protein and isoflavones. Be sure that soy based products such as tofu, soy milk, edamame and such have a label stating it is 100% certified organic to be sure it isn’t genetically modified.
  • Canola or Rapeseed: Made from one of two cultivars of the rapeseed plant, canola oil almost certainly is derived from genetically engineered crops, unless you are located in the EU, where no genetically modified crops of rapeseed are yet grown. You find it used mostly as cooking oil and in margarine. Olive oil is a better choice.
  • Cottonseed oil: Cottonseed oil is a primary ingredient in shortening, vegetable oil and margarine, none of which are healthy fats, and many of which contain trans fats. It is also used to a great extent in processed foods like potato chips and other fried snack foods.
  • Dairy: Some farmers inject cows with the genetically engineered hormone rBGH or rBST in order to boost milk production. Cows also may be fed genetically modified food in the form of grain and alfalfa unless the milk specifically states that it is organic. Look for products that advertise themselves as rBGH- or rBST-free.
  • Sugar beets: There is unfortunately no way of knowing if something labeled as containing “sugar” comes from just sugar cane or if it also includes sugar made from beets, since there is no special labeling required. Beet sugar can be avoided by buying products labeled as being made with evaporated cane sugar, 100% cane sugar or organic sugar.

Avoid aspartame as a sweetener. The sweetener used in many products such as NutraSweet and Equal, Aspartame is derived from genetically modified microorganisms.

Buy 100% organic fruit juices. Though most fruit juices are not derived from GM foods, the sweetener used in many of these juices (and sodas as well) is high fructose corn syrup, which is almost certainly from genetically modified corn.

Buy meat that is 100% grass-fed. Most cattle in the U.S. are grass-fed until the last three to four months of their lives. At this point they are usually shipped to feedlots where they may be given GM corn and other genetically modified foods in order to increase the amount of “marbling” in the meat. Meat from these feedlot animals has higher levels of saturated fat and less of the healthy omega 3 fatty acids than grass-fed and grass-finished animals. To avoid meat that has been fed GMOs, make sure the animal was100% grass-fed or pasture-fed (sometimes also referred to as grass-finished or pasture-finished). For animals such as pigs and poultry that cannot be 100% grass-fed, it’s better to buy meat that is labeled as 100% certified organic if possible.

Buy wild caught fish. Farm raised fish are fed fish meal containing GM grains and sometimes meat and bone meal.

Buy 100% certified organic eggs. Eggs should be labeled 100% certified organic, as those with only a “free-range,” “natural,” or “cage-free” label are not necessarily free of GMOs.

Buy your meat and produce at local farmers’ markets. Most genetically modified food is grown on large industrial farms. The farmers’ market allows you to talk directly with the farmer to find out how the food was grown. These markets also usually provide a range of other products, such as organic honey, grains, baked goods, etc. Another place to find healthy, non-GMO products is your neighborhood co-op.

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