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The New Food Fight

Foods containing genetically engineered ingredients are almost everywhere. Here’s what families need to know about these potentially dangerous foods. From KIWI’s April/May issue.

Photographs by Peter Tak

Here’s a startling fact: Every day, most of us—even natural food enthusiasts—eat foods that contain ingredients whose DNA has been altered in a science lab. Whether it’s the string cheese kids pull apart at lunch or the popcorn you snack on after dinner, there’s a good chance the item in question includes genetically modified organisms, which some experts say could have harmful consequences for people—especially kids. Here, an in-depth look at GMOs’ effect on our health and the environment, plus how you can keep your family safe.

What are GMOs?

Genetically modified organisms, also known as genetically engineered (GE) food, have DNA that has been altered in a way that does not occur in nature. While natural selection and traditional agriculture can change a plant’s DNA structure over a long period of time (for example, quinoa has developed a soapy coating to repel insects, and farmers continually replant the seeds of their juiciest tomatoes to yield a juicer breed over time), the biotechnology responsible for creating GMOs is far quicker: In a lab, desirable genes are inserted into a plant’s cells, becoming a part of the plant’s DNA. The result is a new version of the plant.

How you can protect your family

At first glance, the solution seems simple: Avoid foods containing genetically modified organisms. But unfortunately, the ever-expanding reach of genetically engineered foods means it’s becoming more and more difficult to avoid them completely: GMOs show up in the vast majority of packaged foods, and new GMO crops are continuing to be deregulated by the government, further contaminating the food system. If you buy natural and organic foods much of the time, you may be ahead of the game—but not necessarily so. Here, ways you can significantly reduce your family’s exposure:

Step one: Know the big GE foods

First, the good news: Currently, there are only nine GE crops in the U.S. food system: The majority of soybeans, canola seeds, corn, and cotton (which can be used to make cottonseed oil) are genetically engineered; small amounts of zucchini, squash, and Hawaiian papaya are also genetically engineered. This past January, the USDA approved genetically modified alfalfa, a purple flowering plant that people don’t usually eat, but is often fed to livestock. And, beginning in May, farmers will again be allowed to plant GE sugar beets (planting was approved by the USDA in 2005, but courts ruled against it in 2010).

The bad news? These crops tend to end up in just about everything. Processed versions of soy, canola, and corn (like soy lecithin, canola oil, and high fructose corn syrup) find their way into about 80 percent of packaged food items like cereal, salad dressing, canned soup, soy-based meat alternatives, and infant formula. Soy and corn, too, along with alfalfa, are fed to the cows, pigs, and chickens that produce meat, milk, and eggs. (Conventional dairy cows are also given the genetically engineered hormone rBGH to boost milk production.) Many more foods also contain cottonseed or canola oil, plus sugar from sugar beets.

Step two: Choose safe alternatives

Unlike countries in the European Union, the United States doesn’t require foods containing GMOs to be labeled, so it’s better to choose foods that specifically indicate they’re GMO-free, like those tested by the Non-GMO Project. After independently testing and verifying a food item’s ingredients, the package receives the Non-GMO Project’s Verified seal (see “Know Your Labels”). Many major natural and organic brands currently participate in the program, including Silk, Organic Valley, Eden, and Whole Foods Markets’ store-brand products (find a full list at “People can look for the Non-GMO Project Seal and trust that rigorous practices for GMO avoidance have been followed,” says Westgate. Another option: Check out the True Food Shopper’s Guide (or download the app), a comprehensive list of GMO brands and their non-GMO counterparts from the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit environmental and public health organization (

USDA-certified organic foods are the next best option, but since GE crops can be grown in close proximity to organic ones, they aren’t entirely immune from potential cross-pollination. Pollen from a GE crop can blow into the field of an organic crop and potentially intermingle with the organic crops’ reproductive system, causing the GE DNA to get into the organic crops’ DNA. “But in general, we know the risk of contamination to organic foods is significantly lower than to conventional foods. Organics are a good place to look to avoid GMOs, but consumers should still look for certified non-GMO products when possible,” Westgate says.

What about foods without packaging—like fruits, vegetables, and meat? For now, the vast majority of fresh fruits and vegetables are safe. The exceptions are some zucchini, yellow squash, Hawaiian papaya, and sweet corn—small amounts of which are genetically modified. Here, it’s advisable to buy organic or from a local farmer who can guarantee his crops aren’t genetically engineered (you can also ask if he is near any large-scale GE farms that might cause cross-contamination). Less reassuring is the fact that “conventional chicken, cows, and pigs have been raised on a near-complete diet of GM corn, soy, and now alfalfa,” says Benbrook—so concerned families should choose certified organic, 100 percent grass-fed meats whenever possible.

Step three: Stand up for your health

The U.S. government is likely to continue to support GMO foods. The USDA’s January ruling in favor of genetically engineered alfalfa means more foods will contain GMOs, and organic crops risk further contamination from cross-pollination. Even major players in the fight against GMOs, like Whole Foods Market and the Organic Trade Association, say that a co-existence between organic, GMO-free food, and genetically engineered food may be the best option available for now, since the government hasn’t established further organic-protecting regulation. Others, like the Organic Consumer Association, want to push for mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs with a grassroots campaign, Millions Against Monsanto. (To find out how you can sign petitions and volunteer for the cause, visit The best way to support organics? Use the power of your purchases. “In Europe, consumer rejection was achieved—and brands removed GMOs from their products. If enough American consumers stop buying GMO foods here, it could make the same impact,” Smith says.  The bottom line is: The choice for what to feed your family should always be yours.


Learn even more about GMOs—and keep up with the ongoing debate surrounding GE alfalfa—from these organizations:

Learn more about GMOs—and how to keep your family safe—by purchasing KIWI’s digital edition.

Talk About It

Do you actively avoid foods containing GMOs? Do you think GM foods should be labeled?

  • erica

    great story, thanks for covering. it can be difficult to explain bioengineering/GMOs and their reach in our food supply. easiest way to make a difference and encourage change is with your “vote” at the grocery store checkout!!

  • Laura

    I blogged about this a while back, too. (

    I think as bioengineering gets wackier (eg: the “human milk” from cows that is in the headlines this week), more people are going to take a stand against it.

  • Mckinley0922

    Great story, and wonderful topic! I can’t wait to share this with my group!

  • Ds57908

    very good point 

  • Jesse

    I think it is almost going in the wrong direction.  I am a big proponent for  organic and natural foods.  I am all for nice and big red tomatoes, but not if it comes at the expense of unnaturally genetically altering the makeup of the vegetables… Do it the old fashion way by naturally cross pollinating and a little patience.  It tastes better in the end eating the fruits of your labor :)

  • Carly

    Yes. And def. yes

  • jayedee

    the frightening thing is the pandora’s box senario that is likely happening.…as big agri becomes more and more powerful…we’ll have less and less say so in the how’s and what we eat.  thank goodness for groups like this that educate at the grass roots level!

  • Ella Baker

    European Union and the United States have strong disagreements over the EU’s
    regulation of genetically modified food. The US claims these regulations
    violate free trade agreements, the EU counter-position is that free trade is
    not truly free without informed consent. 

  • Karen Heilman

    I had my Moms Meet group members read this article for our last meeting. Only a couple of us make an active effort to avoid buying foods containing GMOs, but all of us were concerned. It seems like there are so many things to worry about as it is (e.g. pesticides, food-borne illnesses, factory farming) and this just another thing to add to the list. It makes grocery shopping seem very overwhelming, especially for families on a tight budget. We all felt that requiring labels on GM foods would be a step in the right direction. Then consumers would be more empowered to show the government and companies like Monsanto that they do not want “frankenfoods” on their tables!

  • RedMountainRanch

    This is why we started growing as many of our own vegetables as we can. This is absolutely heartbreaking to think that our children will be subjected to GMO and will have no idea.

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