The GMO Labeling Conundrum Made Simple!

06/06/2016 03:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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I am a Holistic Nutritionist and passionate environmentalist, and I still get confused about the whole GMO labeling conundrum - and conundrum it most definitely is: As I write, there is a bill in the Senate (also known as the DARK Act) that, if passed, would eradicate states' rights to label GMOs and replace simple, legible on-package labels with QR codes. But first let's get back to the basics.

What is a GMO (genetically modified organism) or a GE (genetically engineered) ingredient? Simply put, genetic engineering is removing the genetic material from one organism and inserting it into the permanent genetic code (DNA) of another. Genetic engineering is used by scientists to enhance or modify the characteristics of an individual organism. When it comes to GE food crops, the main purpose is to make them withstand high amounts of herbicides - Monsanto's RoundUp, for example. Keep in mind that the same companies (Monsanto, Dow, Bayer) that sell GE seeds, also manufacture the herbicides.

Until recently, the jury has been out as far as whether or not this engineering of foods in a lab could have a deleterious effect on human health. Various studies link GMOs to allergies and antibiotic resistance. But it was the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an independent agency affiliated with the World Health Organization (WHO), that dropped the bombshell last year. IARC listed glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's herbicide RoundUp, as a probable carcinogen. Glyphosate is routinely sprayed on GE crops and is now the most widely used herbicide ever (link to: http://www.newsweek.com/glyphosate-now-most-used-agricultural-chemical-ever-422419).

Given this information, I certainly feel that I have the need, and frankly the right to know whether or not my foods contains GE ingredients and therefore, traces of glyphosate. However, we are woefully behind the rest of the world in identifying and labeling foods that contain them. Unlike Europe, GMO labeling is not mandatory in the United States. In fact, the big agri-business has spent millions of dollars over the past few years trying to defeat numerous bills, which if passed, would make them clearly label their foods.

So, until something changes (and I'll keep you posted) let's break down the big indicators on any given product!!

1. LOOK IN THE FOODS YOU'RE ARE BUYING, AND THEN THE INGREDIENTS
- A pretty obvious place to start. Be on the look-out for ingredients that might be derived from GMOs, and familiarize yourself with the abundant aliases for the common GMOs. The big GE food crops are:
  • Corn, which is in EVERYTHING. There's the obvious corn derivatives: corn flour, corn fructose, corn meal, corn oil, corn syrup. But there's also corn in citric acid, confectioner's sugar, dextrin and dextrose, fructose, lactic acid, malt, cellulose, mono- and di-glycerides, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sorbitol, starch, baking powder ... The list goes on and on. There are lots of great lists available, I think this one is a good place to start. The big thing to note here is that full disclosure on all corn-containing ingredients on a product label is not required. So we have to get smarter about what we're looking for.
  • Soybeans, again, there's the obvious edamame, miso, tempeh, tamari, and soy products (such as cheese, fiber, flour, ice cream, milk, nuts, etc.). But soy can also be found in vegetable gum, starch and broth. In fact, FoodAllergy.org says that soybeans and soy products can also be found in baked foods, canned tuna and meat, cookies, cereals, crackers, protein bars, infant formulas, sauces, canned broths and soups, to name a few unsuspecting culprits.
  • Canola, which includes canola oil. Be aware of canola in salad dressings, baked goods (fresh and canned), margarine, mayonnaise, crackers, cookies, fried foods, condiments, etc.
  • Cottonseed. Avoid cottonseed oil and buy organic cotton apparel and home textiles, when possible.
  • Sugar beets, which is different than sugar. Here's a tip: If a non-organic product made in North America lists "sugar" as an ingredient (and NOT pure cane sugar), then it is most likely a combination of sugar from both sugarcane and GE sugar beets).

Hawaiian Papaya.

Another category to be aware of is dairy and meat products. Alfalfa is one of this country's biggest GE crops, and while we don't eat alfalfa, animals (particularly cows) do. Also, animals are frequently injected with a GM bovine growth hormone. Looks for labels that clearly state no rBGH, rBST or artificial hormones. And buy 100% grass-fed (or 100% organic) meat. Or, better yet, switch to a plant-based option.

2. BUY ORGANIC - Organic means no GMOs - As simple as that. The USDA Certified Organic seal means that a product is 100% GMO-free. Buying organic is also the only way to know your food was produced without the use of toxic, synthetic chemicals, sewage sludge, irradiation, or animal cloning.
Look for labeling that says "100% organic," "organic," or "made with organic ingredients." for more information on organic foods, check out my super easy Starter Guide to Going Organic.

3. LOOK FOR NON-GMO PROJECT SEALS - Products that carry the Non-GMO Project Verified logo are independently verified to be GE free. The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization (NOT a government program) committed to providing consumers with clearly labeled and independently verified non-GMO choices. I love their search function, which allows you to find verified products and brands easily!

4. CHECK THAT PLU - That's right, the stickers on produce will tell you a lot of information, including whether the food has been genetically modified or engineered.
If it is a 4-digit number, the food is conventionally produced. This food may or may not be genetically modified.
If it is a 5-digit number beginning with an 8, it is GM. However, DO NOT TRUST that all GM foods will have PLU at starts with 8, because PLU labeling is optional.
If it is a 5-digit number beginning with a 9, it is organic and is not genetically modified.

5. SHOP WITH YOUR PHONE - The Center For Food Safety has created an iPhone and Android app that can help you avoid GMOs when you're in the aisles.

For me, the big takeaway is that we have to be smarter shoppers. Looking for labels (certified organic and Non-GMO Project Verified) is a great place to start. But it's also important that we know the GMO culprits, and how they're labeled on foods. I also think that the less processed and "prepared" foods I buy, the less GMOs are coming into my body. For instance, I rarely buy tomato sauce. Making it myself is just as easy, and that way I can control each and every ingredient.

In my mind, the GMO debate is about one thing: transparency. We have a right to know what's in our food. And the best way to make our voices heard is with our money. By purchasing non-GMO products, we're sending a direct message about our priorities!

COMING UP - What YOU can do to help this issue along on a National level.