Is it possible to escape genetic engineering at the grocery store?

I pick up a box of my favorite peanut butter granola bars. The front of the box says, "100% Natural" and tells me they contain "16 Grams of Whole Grain*" while the back is filled with all kinds of information on what's inside: a full ingredient list, an all-caps notice that they contain "peanut, soy; may contain almond and pecan ingredients," a plethora of nutrition facts like calories, fat and protein. It even notes, "Carbohydrate Choices: 2" for those with a special diet plan. My main, and seemingly simple, question goes unanswered though: is this made with genetically engineered ingredients? (Genetically engineered crops are also known as GE, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs — go ahead and pick your favorite term, they're all interchangeable.)

I've come to a grocery store near the Farm Aid office in Cambridge, Massachusetts with one question in mind: how easy is it to find out if products contain GE ingredients?

What am I finding? It's not easy to find out at all.

Who Cares if Your Food Has GMOs?

Leaving aside the question of whether or not GE ingredients are safe for our health or harmful for farmers and the environment, I like to think that we all have the right to know what we're eating. Is this soda made with sugar or high fructose corn syrup? Are these shrimp wild-caught in Maine or are they farm-raised in Thailand? Those questions are relatively easy to answer: the packages and signs in stores tell you, and if not, store employees are ready to help answer your questions.

But one thing I definitely didn't see during my trip to the grocery store was anything like, "This product contains GMOs." Is that because I'd stumbled into a natural food store untouched by GE ingredients? Definitely not. I saw hundreds of products all over the store that are no doubt made with GE ingredients. However, despite overwhelming public support for labeling GE food (a 2008 CBS/New York Times poll put the number at 87%!), there are no requirements for labeling them. Presumably, companies are concerned people will avoid their products if they see they contain GE ingredients. So we consumers are left in the dark, unless we do some research or look for the small number of companies who declare that their products are "GE-free."

Avoiding GMOs: The Easy Way

There are two surefire ways to avoid GE ingredients:

  • Don't buy processed foods
  • Buy certified organic

Very few fresh fruits or vegetables for sale are genetically engineered (papayas and a variety of yellow squash are exceptions), so you're generally safe if you stick to that area of the supermarket. Animals raised for dairy and meat may have been fed GE crops, so look for organic dairy and meat products or find a local farmer to purchase from whom you can ask.

To get that USDA Organic label on a product, it can't contain GE ingredients (along with other restrictions like not using ingredients grown with chemical fertilizer — for more info on organics, see this Ask Farm Aid article). Even products labeled "made with organic ingredients," which are made from both organic and non-organic ingredients, aren't allowed to contain GE ingredients. So processed foods that are labeled "organic" or "made with organic ingredients" are theoretically GE-free.

Avoiding GMOs: The Not-So-Easy Way

If you're like me though, not everything you buy is organic. That's when a little research and a few technical tools can help out. Try to read up ahead of time on brands that have pledged not to use GE ingredients. You can print out guides on avoiding GE products from The Center for Food Safety or the Non-GMO Project.

Even better, with my smartphone I was able to use an app as I browsed through the grocery store so I could look up information on brands and recommendations for foods while I shopped. If you have an Android or iPhone, check out these free options (if you have other resources for learning about foods that contain GE ingredients, please leave a comment below):

Even with these tools, it's not easy to find and avoid GE ingredients. Aspartame, corn flour, soy flour, sugar (unless it's cane sugar), corn syrup, maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup, vegetable oil, xanthan gum — these, and dozens more, are all ingredients found in thousands of processed foods that are likely made with GE components. If you're looking to avoid GE ingredients, get very used to reading through long lists on the backs of food packages.

The GE-free Check-Out

So what did I end up with at the grocery store? A basket full of fresh vegetables (some organic and some not), some citrus fruits (no organic ones available), a carton of organic milk, a bag of tortilla chips from a brand that doesn't use GE ingredients, and a pound of shrimp (turns out, they were wild-caught in Maine and not farm-raised in Thailand!).

One thing I did not buy was that box of granola bars. I got home and visited the company's website but still didn't find any information about GE ingredients. When I tried to use their "Contact Us" form, I was greeted with a broken error web page. I then used Twitter to try and ask if they knew if any of their varieties were made with GE ingredients — I'm still waiting for that response. I guess maybe it's time for me to find a new favorite granola bar.

Further Reading

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