Don’t be afraid of what you don’t understand

By Ruth MacDonald, RD PhD

Non-GMO labels on foods are popping up on grocery store shelves all over the US. These labels are intended to send the message that these foods are safe and healthy because they do not have GMOs.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, are foods that have been modified using molecular tools. These tools allow very precise and well-controlled changes to be made in a plant or animal’s DNA to give the plant or animal a beneficial characteristic. GMOs come into the food supply mainly as ingredients that are obtained from corn, sugar beets or soybeans, including oils, sweeteners, starches and fiber.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the government body that regulates and monitors the food supply, approves all foods and ingredients made from GMOs before they can be sold in the grocery store. Since 1993, the FDA has maintained that GMO foods are safe and do not pose any risk to human health. Many other health organizations have also reviewed evidence and found that GMO foods are safe to eat.

Some people may think that foods labeled non-GMO are healthier or have higher nutritional value than other foods. The facts are that a non-GMO label does not make a food healthier or better for you. And there is no reason to think that GMO foods are less nutritious because of the way they were grown.

When a food is developed using GMO tools, the FDA requires that there be no change in the nutritional value of the food. This means that corn oil made from GMO corn is of equal nutritional value as oil made from non-GMO corn, and soy protein from GMO soybeans is just as healthy as soy protein from non-GMO soybeans. There are exceptions to that however when the GMO modification is intended to improve the nutritional value.

In fact, GMO tools are being used today to improve all types of foods to make them healthier. An example would be modifying rice to have higher amounts of vitamin A, or soybeans to have more of the healthy type of fat.

GMO tools can also reduce food costs and food waste. A newly produced GMO apple does not turn brown after being cut which means it will stay fresh in a lunch box all day. A GMO salmon has been produced that grows twice as fast as the non-GMO salmon, which will make this healthy food more affordable. The potential of GMO tools to improve the nutritional value of foods is almost unlimited.

So, if GMO foods are safe and healthy, why would there be any need for non-GMO labels on foods? One reason is to give consumers a choice.

Americans are increasingly interested in where their food comes from and how it was grown. Some people may prefer foods that are not made using GMO tools, and having non-GMO labels allows them to make their own decisions about what foods they buy. But a different reason may be that marketers are benefiting from consumer fear of the unknown. Consumers may be willing to pay more for a food labeled non-GMO because they think that food is safer or healthier.

Some organizations have begun to call the use of non-GMO labeling misleading and unethical. Of concern to me as a nutritionist, is that consumers with lower incomes or those on fixed budgets may believe they have to buy the higher-priced non-GMO foods and limit their intake of healthy foods.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that GMO foods are safe and pose no risk to human health. So the next time you are in the store, do read labels to determine which foods provide the most nutritional value, but be confident that you don’t need to spend more on those non-GMO labels.

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Ruth MacDonald is currently the Professor and Chair of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University, and Interim Senior Associate Dean for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She received her Ph.D. in Nutrition and Food Science from the University of Minnesota.