Recent advances in technology don't stop at smart watches or 3-D printing — we can engineer just about everything in this world, including our food.
The phrase "GMO" is probably familiar to you, even if all you know about genetically modified organisms is their sinister sounding acronym. Understanding what exactly a GMO is, and why that distinction is important, is key to a healthy awareness of what you're eating.
So what are GMOs?
According to the World Health Organization, genetically modified organisms (GMOs, for short) are "organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in such a way that does not occur naturally." This genetic engineering, also known as biotechnology or recombinant DNA technology, simply means inserting genetic fragments of DNA from one organism to another.
One of the most common alterations in GMOs is the introduction of genes from bacteria that will make plants tolerant to herbicides, which farmers can then use to control weeds. This modification is especially common in corn.
To genetically modify crops, scientists insert a gene sequence into plant cells, which they then grow in a lab before breeding. Both the location of the transferred gene sequence in the corn DNA and the consequences of the insertion differ with each insertion. The combination of different plants and organisms has given GMOs another nickname — "frankenfood."
Genetically modifying crops is different from crossbreeding fruits and vegetables — a process we have to thank for the pluot and mandarin orange. Hybrids can occur naturally through cross-pollination.
Why would you want to avoid them?
The American Journal of Environmental Medicine has come out against genetically modified foods because of the adverse health risks. Various feeding studies in animals have resulted in potentially pre-cancerous cell growth, damaged immune systems, smaller brains, livers, and testicles, partial atrophy or increased density of the liver, odd shaped cell nuclei and other unexplained anomalies, false pregnancies and higher death rates.
But what about humans? The only feeding study done with humans simply showed that GMOs can survive inside the stomach of the people eating GMO food, according to Nature Biotechnology. No follow-up studies have been done.
So how can you avoid GMOs?
Try following these four simple steps:
1. Buy organic, since the USDA forbids foods labeled "organic" from containing GMOs. If you stick to certified organic foods, you know you're avoiding GMOs.
2. Look for products labeled "GMO free" or certified by the Non-GMO Project. Thrive Market even has it's own "Non-GMO Project Verified" label to sort non-GMO products, and has made a commitment not to carry any genetically modified foods.
3. Avoid the "big four" ingredients most likely to be GMOs: corn, soybeans, cottonseed and canola. Of course, if they are marked organic or GMO-free, you're in the clear.
Remember, cottonseed oil can be in a lot of processed foods, so read labels carefully. Soy can also be called many other names in labels, including soy lecithin.
4. There’s an app for that. Download the Non-GMO Shopping Guide onto your PC or phone here.
5. Sign up for a local CSA box. CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture, allow you to buy seasonal produce directly from a farmer. You'll receive a bag or box of whatever fruits and vegetables are in season each week, and you know you're getting the freshest, healthiest produce.