Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), The Stealth Food Ingredient

By Betsy Keller, MS, RD

In the summer of 1996, my first child was born, TWA flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean and genetically engineered ingredients were introduced into our food supply.  I was too distracted by the birth of my first child and the tragic CNN images to be aware that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were approved for the Flavr Savr tomato and being introduced indirectly into my breast milk.

Where’s the GMO?  The New Label Game

The Non-GMO shopping guide helps consumers identify and avoid GMOs at retail.

I am a registered dietitian and have spent countless hours teaching the workshop “How to Read a Food Label.”   It is inconceivable that I never once included information on GMO ingredients in my lectures.  There is a simple explanation for this-GMO ingredients are not listed on food labels. I did not become aware of the controversial issues surrounding GMOs until I purposefully became involved in the green food movement.

WHAT- GMOs can be simply explained as plants that contain genes transferred into their DNA from another living organism. Plant genes can be changed with DNA taken from bacteria, viruses, insects and animals.For example, genes from an arctic flounder which has an “antifreeze” property can be placed into a tomato to prevent frost damage.  I wonder what Watson and Crick would have thought about their DNA research being used to scientifically alter the world’s food supply 50 years later.

WHO- Four major players-Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Bayer, and Syngenta – lead the way with bioengineering and marketing of four principal GM crops –soybeans, corn, rice canola and cottonseed.

WHY-These companies manipulated plants to either resist herbicides (like Monsanto’s RoundUp) or produce their own internal pesticides to protect against pests. The claims and chief selling points have been and remain, despite growing evidence to the contrary,  that GMO crops require fewer chemicals while producing a greater yield.

WHERE- As my son was growing into a young man, GMO crops were multiplying exponentially and being processed into several hidden ingredients used in packaged foods.  According to the Institute for Responsible Technology, GMO crops in the U.S. include soy (91%), cotton (88%), canola (88%), corn (85%), Hawaiian papaya (more than 50%), zucchini and yellow squash (small amount), and tobacco (Quest® brand). About half of the sugar beets grown for sugar in 2008 were GM and current projections are that about 90% grown in 2009 will be GM. The GM potatoes and tomatoes were taken off the market.

NO TRANSPARENCY – Today, at least one GMO ingredient is found in 90% of packaged food products in US grocery stores, but you’d never know it because they aren’t labeled. Despite efforts to pass state or federal mandatory GMO labeling laws, none have succeeded. Just yesterday California failed to pass legislation mandating the labeling of GE salmon.

UNFETTERED GROWTH -The majority of GMO corn and soy is routinely fed to farm animals and studies show that GMO material can appear in the resulting food products. In addition, GMO wheat and vegetables are being developed.


Change in DNA– Like other novel ingredients such as Trans fats, it has taken decades to realize they may be harmful to our health.  Change to DNA may ultimately affect the organism (humans included) in ways that scientists may not be able to predict.

Allergies– Many genes being introduced into GMO plants have not been part of the food supply so we may not know if they cause allergies. In one case, soy beans blended with a gene from a Brazil nut caused allergic reactions.

Change in gut bacteria– Preliminary studies show unexpected changes in gut bacteria in animals fed GMO feed.

Genetic Pollution – Genes engineered into plants can be transferred to other plant species, and seed and pollen can drift to non-GE farms, thereby contaminating them. The introduction of GMOs into complex ecosystems, like our oceans, may bring effects that we can’t predict or control. The USDA approved a strain of Monsanto’s GMO sweet corn that will be incorporated into the food supply with no ability to track safety. Chances are this corn is being planted this season in our state and will be sold to you as fresh ears of corn this summer.

GMO Crops Show Resistance- As weeds adapt to herbicides systematically sprayed on them, they develop resistance and evolve into what are called “super weeds.” With the rise of Round-Up resistant ‘super weeds’ the company is simply telling farmers to go on the offense and spray even more potent toxic herbicides. New generation GM corn varieties are being created to resist not only Round-Up, but older more toxic herbicides that fell out of use but are now being reintroduced to fight off super weeds.

More pesticide use– a next generation GMO corn from Dow has been created to better resist the poisonous herbicide 2, 4-D, a key ingredient from Agent Orange used to defoliate forests and croplands in the Vietnam War. While the USDA tries to assure the public that 2, 4-D is safe, scientists have raised serious concerns about its effects on human health including increased cancer risks especially for soft tissue sarcoma and malignant lymphoma. According to the Cornucopia Institute, the approval of a crop resistant to 2, 4-D will cause an exponential increase in use of the herbicides.

What do the Europeans and Peruvians understand that we don’t? In Europe, GMO labeling laws first came into effect in 1997 and were updated in 2004 to include all food products that utilize GMOs during any point in their production. GMO crops have been rejected by consumers in Europe, possibly due to balanced media coverage of the including health issues. In Europe, at least 174 regions, more than 4,500 councils and local governments have declared themselves GMO free. Peru recently declared a 10-year ban on genetically modified foods.

FDA and GMO- Two acronyms to be wary of.

In 1992, the FDA declared that GMO food ingredients need not be labeled based on industry sponsored research showing that GMO ingredients are nutritionally equivalent to non-GMOs.

The FDA did not conduct its own research or hire third party researchers and to this day continues to rely on GMO industry findings. One Monsanto study involved a nutritional analysis of non-GMO soybeans vs. GMO “Roundup Ready” soybeans, which were created to be resistant to Monsanto’s “Roundup” herbicide. The nutritional content of the two soybeans were found to be similar in composition and amount. It’s important to remember that there are 1000’s of plant substances we are still unaware of that protect our health  (i.e polyphenols – more than 8,000- were discovered in the last 20 years).  We need to look beyond the Dietary Reference Intakes on food labels – established originally as the RDA for only 30 + nutrients in 1941- by the Institute of Medicine as a baseline to determine good nutrition for our armed forces.

We are Confused-A recently published Neilson Survey of global healthy eating trends, found that 6 out of 10 people in the US don’t understand why a food is healthy or not. Interesting to note that three of the top five foods purchased for their apparent health benefits – whole grains, bread fortified with calcium, and yogurt with probiotics – all contain GMOs in some form or another.

Consumers are being encouraged to move away from packaged, processed food products and get back to the basics – preparing meals at home from scratch with fresh ingredients. But that advice becomes a labeling Tower of Babel as even basic ingredients will contain GMOs unless the product is Certified Organic.  Even then,  a small amount of non-organic ingredients are allowed in organic foods.

What can you do?

Educate yourself and avoid GMOs in your diet using these resources:

A GMO  primer by Analiese Paik, founder and editor of the Fairfield Green Food Guide

The Institute for Responsible Technology- Founded in 2003 by international author and GMO expert Jeffrey Smith, IRT has worked in more than 30 countries on 6 continents, and is credited with improving government policies and influencing consumer-buying Smith’s Campaign for Healthier Eating in America is designed to “end the genetic engineering of our food supply quickly” through consumer rejection rather than through “politics and government.” IRT’s Executive Directory, Jeffrey Smith, will be the keynote speaker and a workshop leader at CT NOFA’s annual winter conference on March 3. Click her for more information and to RSVP.

The Center for Food Safety – works to protect human health and the environment by curbing the proliferation of harmful food production technologies and by promoting organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture. Their recent claim to fame- a California court case halting the planting of GMO alfalfa.  Monsanto appealed twice and lost. Join the CFS effort and link here-

Read Food Labels– Ignore marketing hype and look for three items on the package label- the nutrition label, the ingredient list and the certified organic logo. Take a mental picture of your pantry- the canola oil, the soy lecithin in every bakery product…all from soy crops, 80% of which are GMO.Whole Foods Market and 365 brands are non-GMO and all of Trader Joe’s store brand products are Non-GMO! According to Jeffrey Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, the 5-digit PLU code on produce does not tell you what is genetically modified or natural. This can now be classified as an urban legend.

Check out the Non-GMO Shopping Guide

Email a letter- Write your legislators and encourage them to support laws and policies that protect our food supply from GMO industry pressure. A group of Connecticut legislators will be once again be introducing legislation mandating package labeling of products containing GMOs. According to the Institute for Responsible Technology, the industry pressured USDA to let GMO products pass as organic. During the public comment period, the USDA received more than 275,000 angry letters from citizens. Thanks to this public protest, GMO products cannot be labeled organic.

Join the Pro-Labeling Movement-A pro-labeling movement has been gaining momentum and a coalition of sustainable-food NGOs and organic businesses has launched a campaign to raise awareness both at the government level and publicly to support GMO food labeling.  Major print and broadcast media-CNN, Time and Grist- have taken on the topic and are helping to raise awareness about GMO content in foods and halt Monsanto’s monopoly on seed crops. Gary Hirshberg recently stepped down from his position as CEO of Stonyfield Farm to lead the Just Label It campaign. Join the CFS effort and link here-

Food Democracy Now (from website)- On January 31 (today!), family farmers will take part in the first phase of a court case filed to protect farmers from genetic trespass by Monsanto’s GMO seed, which contaminates organic and non-GMO farmer’s crops and opens them up to abusive lawsuits.

“Like” and follow tweets by Adam Eidinger, the GMO protest poster child who organized last October’s a 100 person, 313 mile “Right2Know March” from New York City to the White House for federally mandated GMO food labeling.  On January 24, 2012 he presented to Monsanto officers and shareholders a proposal to create a study of “material financial risks or operational impacts” associated with its chemical products and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Say No To GMOs! The Non GMO Project verifies and labels processed food products using a trustworthy standard. Right now there are efforts underway for an industry wide effort to create labels for non-GMO foods.

Betsy Keller, MS, RD is a nutrition marketing and communications consultant specializing in sustainable food, nutrition and health-related issues. She is a freelance writer and also lectures in Fairfield County, CT.

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