Saturday, June 8, 2013


I had an unusual family correspondence about genetically modified food (GMOs) this week. It involved my brother who was concerned about possible health effects of eating such food, and another relative who is an expert in genetic engineering. This, and all the recent news in the U.S. papers, has forced me to focus again on the issue. I hadn't looked much at it since doing masses of mind-boggling research on the topic for The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices About Risky Food several years ago. The book, by the way, ended up with a very much reduced section on genetic modification for a variety of reasons.

What I discovered when I rechecked the science now was that our knowledge has not advanced that much since I wrote the book. We still aren't sure whether eating such food on a regular basis will harm our health. If it does, it is likely to be very long term - at least 20 years or more, of regular exposure to GMOs in our diet. In the meantime, the number of GMOs on our store shelves is expanding and increasing our chances of heavier exposure.

For several reasons, the GMO issue has now once again come to the attention of the U.S. public. And, some progress has been made to keep the eating public safer. Connecticut passed the first GMO food labeling law in the U.S. a few days ago. This law requires that food containing genetically modified ingredients be labeled as such. But it has an odd requirement - that four other states must pass similar legislation. So in other words, it ended up being a kind of compromise, and may never be implemented. Last minute heavy industry lobbying seems to have come into play.

If we are concerned about eating such foods, what do we do in the meantime, while we are waiting for better labeling or other action by the FDA? Well, if it is really true, as the U.S. Grocery Manufacturing Association claims, that perhaps 70% of the foods sold in America contain GMOs, then we have a problem. In fact, even organic items may well contain traces.

At least we can avoid some of the most obvious genetically modified produce by reading the PLU (small stuck-on labels)on our fruit and vegetables. A 5 digit number beginning with 8 means that the produce has been genetically modified. There is more on this in the book in the chapter on Fruits and Vegetables (section on Labeling).

And, we can avoid processed foods as much as possible, since they often contain dozens of ingredients, with at least one or two that have been genetically modified. Shopping at certain stores - often more expensive, such as Whole Foods Market, can also help. This chain carries hundreds of items that are verified by Non-GMO project, which is a process-based standard intended to help suppliers keep GMO ingredients to a minimum.

You can also give priority to foods which voluntarily carry a label saying "non-GMO" in other stores. Or, you may be able to source your food directly from a farm which is using GMO avoidance practices. Or, grow your own - if you can.

But the chances are that avoiding GMOs in our food may take more time, energy or money than many of us can afford. If that is the case, don't stress out about it. Eating the occasional genetically engineered food item is not going to kill you. Simply do the best you can, giving priority to your young children, and taking special precautions if you are pregnant, or, planning to become pregnant in the near future.

To your good health,


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