Genetically modified foods are everywhere, but what the heck are they? We’re shedding light on why GMOs are such a hot topic in the nutrition world

By Julie Stewart

Whether you realize it or not, there's a good chance you eat genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) every single day. The Grocery Manufacturer's Association estimates that 70 to 80 percent of our food contains genetically modified ingredients.

But these commonplace foods have also been the topic of lots of recent debates: Just this April, Chipotle made headlines when they announced that their food was made of all non-GMO ingredients. However, a new class-action lawsuit filed on California on August 28 suggests that Chipotle's claims don't hold weight because the chain serves meat and dairy products from animals fed GMOs as well as beverages with GMO corn syrup, such as Coca-Cola.

Why are people so up in arms about GMOs? We're lifting the lid on the controversial foods. (Find out: Are These the New GMOs?)

1. Why They Exist

Do you really know? "Generally, we know consumer knowledge of GMO is low," says Shahla Wunderlich, Ph.D., a professor of health and nutrition sciences at Montclair State University who studies agricultural production systems. Here's the scoop: A GMO has been engineered to have traits it wouldn't come by naturally (in many cases, to stand up to herbicides and/or to produce insecticides). There are plenty of genetically modified products out there-synthetic insulin used to treat diabetes patients is actually one example.

However, GMOs are most famous in food. Take Roundup Ready Corn, for instance. It's been modified so that it can survive exposure to herbicides that kill surrounding weeds. Corn, soybeans, and cotton are the most common genetically modified crops-yes, we eat cotton in cottonseed oil. There are plenty of others, though, such as canola, potatoes, alfalfa, and sugar beets. (See a complete list of crops that have passed the USDA's muster since 1995.) Since many of those foods are used to make ingredients, like soybean oil or sugar or cornstarch, for instance, their potential to infiltrate the food supply is huge. Companies that make GMOs tend to argue that it's a necessary venture-that to feed the world's growing population, we need to make the most of the farm land we have, says Wunderlich. "Maybe you can produce more, but we feel like also they should explore other alternatives," says Wunderlich. (P.S. These 7 Ingredients Are Robbing You of Nutrients.)

2. Whether They're Safe

Genetically modified foods hit supermarket shelves in the '90s. Although that seems like a long time ago-after all, nostalgia for the decade is in full force-it hasn't been long enough for scientists to conclusively figure out whether eating GMOs is safe. "There are actually a couple things that people are saying, though there's not 100 percent proof," says Wunderlich. "One is that there's a likelihood that GMOs can cause an allergic reaction in some people; the other is that they can cause cancer." More research is needed, says Wunderlich. Most of the studies have been conducted in animals, not humans, fed genetically modified crops, and the results have been conflicting. One controversial study published in 2012 by researchers from France suggested that one type of GMO corn caused tumors in rats. The study was later republished by the editors of the first journal it was published in, Food and Chemical Toxicology, citing it as inconclusive even though the research contained no fraud or misrepresentation of data.

3. Where to Find Them

Scan the shelves at your favorite supermarket, and you'll probably see some products touting the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal. (See a complete list.) The Non-GMO Project is an independent group that ensures that products bearing its label are free of genetically modified ingredients. Anything carrying the USDA Organic label is also GMO-free. However, you won't see the opposite-labels revealing that there are genetically modified ingredients inside. Some people want to change that: In 2014, Vermont passed a GMO labeling law scheduled to go into effect in July 2016-and it's currently the center of an intense court battle. Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in July that would allow, but not require, companies to label genetically modified ingredients in their products. If passed by the Senate and signed into law, it will trump any state laws-killing Vermont's efforts to require GMO labeling. (Which brings us to: What Matters Most on a Nutrition Label (Besides Calories).)

In the absence of labeling, anyone looking to avoid GMOs faces an uphill battle: "They're very difficult to avoid completely because they're so widespread," says Wunderlich. One way to reduce your chances of ingesting genetically modified foods is to buy locally grown produce from small-scale farms, ideally organic ones, says Wunderlich. Large-scale farms are more likely to grow GMOs, she says. Plus, locally grown food is usually more nutritious because it's picked when it's ripe, giving it time to develop the good stuff like antioxidants. Cattle and other livestock may be fed GMO food-if you want to avoid that, seek out organic or grass-fed meat.

4. What Other Countries Do About Them

Here's a case where America is behind the curve: Genetically modified organisms are labeled in 64 countries. For example, the European Union (EU) has had GMO labeling requirements for more than a decade. When it comes to GMOs, these countries "are more careful and have more regulations," says Wunderlich. When a genetically modified ingredient is listed on a packaged food, it must be preceded by the words "genetically modified." The only exception? Foods with less than 0.9 percent genetically modified content. However, this policy isn't without critics: In a recent paper published in Trends in Biotechnology, researchers in Poland argued that the EU's GMO laws impede agricultural innovation.

5. Whether They're Bad for the Earth

One argument for genetically modified foods is that by producing crops that are naturally resistant to weedkillers and pests, farmers can reduce their use of pesticides. However, a new study published in Pest Management Science suggests a more complicated story when it comes to the three most popular genetically modified crops. Since GMO crops came out, the yearly use of herbicides has gone down for corn, but stayed the same for cotton and actually increased for soybeans. Buying local, organic food is probably the most eco-friendly move, says Wunderlich, because organic food is grown without pesticides. Plus, locally grown food doesn't have to travel across states and countries, transportation that requires fossil fuels and produces pollution.


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