If you pay attention only to the loudest voices sounding off about our agricultural system, you might assume that traditional foodies and fans of food made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are two very separate groups. But I’m a food lover and a GMO advocate, so to me, the lines have never felt so neatly drawn.
I was raised by two health-conscious foodies in northern California, with Chez Panisse posters adorning our walls, and I spent a good part of my adult life as an all-organic shopper. But a few years ago, when I took a closer look at the evidence about the safety of transgenic crops and conventional pesticides, I changed my mind and my shopping habits. And yet, I still want to talk to the farmer about his tomato crop, or about what the pigs were fed before they became delicious smoked bacon. For me, it’s part of what makes the entire food experience so pleasurable.
I love the planning, shopping, cooking, eating, and, yes, especially all of the talking. But conversations about food can sometimes turn political, and the last thing I want when I’m sharing a picture of Erik Bruner-Yang’s fried chicken and bread is a lecture about factory farms or the righteousness of juicing.
Cheri Kent felt much the same way, which is why she started one of my favorite Facebook groups, the cleverly titled GMO My God, That’s Tasty. “I wanted a place where no one talked about ‘superfoods’ or the desirability of an organic, ‘clean’ diet,” says Kent. “Where processed foods were not only not vilified, but relished.” The secret Facebook group has over 1,300 members from all over the world. We do exactly what you’d expect a huge group of food lovers to do when they get together online — post pictures of food, swap recipes, and get into the occasional heated argument about the best way to eat a hot dog. (For the record — mustard, relish, and onions. Ketchup shall not be mentioned.)
As a foodie and a science-loving skeptic, I sometimes find myself conflicted about what to eat. I love my local farmers markets, restaurateurs, and food producers, but I don’t want to support misleading or fear-based marketing. So, yes, I’ll try that new fast-casual rice bowl place in my neighborhood, but when I see they’ve got GMO-free, HFCS-free, yet obviously-full-of-sugar craft soda on tap? I’m not going back. At the supermarket, I pick up the conventional strawberries, pass on the organic yogurt, and try my best to avoid the dreaded Non-GMO-Project-verified butterfly. But I do have my soft spots. There are some foods that, while atrociously marketed, are just too delicious to resist.
My personal weakness is Kettle chips. As potato chips go, I can find no better than Kettle. They’re perfectly crunchy, not merely crispy, and they taste more potato-y than other chips. Classic potato chip brands, like Lay’s or Utz, seem kind of like fried air in comparison. So, even though Kettle chips carry the butterfly seal, I just have to buy them anyway. I asked my fellow GMO My God, That’s Tasty foodies whether they had any similar guilty pleasures, and the confessions poured in like gluten-free water.
Elizabeth Schulte loves Dave’s Killer Bread. Caroline McGee is “in love” with the dark-chocolate-and-chili combination of her favorite Kind bars, while Bryan McNeal says you can pry Ben and Jerry’s ice cream from his cold, dead hands. For Rebecca Hendrix, it’s extra-firm Morinaga tofu (not just delicious but shelf stable, too!), and Heidi Lutick-Fuller is obsessed with Lundberg Farms sesame tamari rice cakes. Speaking of Lundberg, Heidi’s admission reminded me that I also have a weakness for Lundberg Farms, but for me, it’s their short-grain brown rice. A bag costs almost twice as much as a bag of brown rice from Trader Joe’s, but their short-grain version is just so much plumper and more flavorful. Writer and science advocate Kavin Senapathy is a pretty big stickler for avoiding organic, but even she buys the cheaper, local organic basil for her beloved Caprese.
Of course, it’s more fun to support a great product than launch a boycott, so for that reason, I’m always on the lookout for pro-GMO companies. I’ve yet to try Soylent, but I do buy Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts, since their version has less sugar per serving than the toaster pastries from brands like Nature’s Path, and the company has a history of defending GMO ingredients. So I purchase Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts for my daughter without hesitation — well, not much hesitation, as something in me does flinch at seeing my child eat some sort of neon blue frosting — but, I have to admit, I just don’t like them. The pastry itself isn’t bad, but eating that frosting is sort of like ingesting a thin layer of sugary silicone.
The GMO I’d most eagerly anticipated was Arctic apples — transgenic apples bred to resist browning and reduce food waste as a result. I got to test a few samples before they hit the market; they were certainly good, and my daughter absolutely loved them. But, ugh, the foodie side of me was disappointed that their first offering was the rather bland Golden Delicious variety. Appealing to kids? Absolutely. But what self-respecting food lover craves a Golden Delicious apple? Thankfully, their next variety is Granny Smith, the go-to apple for my favorite crisp recipe, and I’m looking forward to eventually tasting their Fujis.
It seems there will always be food that can trump your politics, even for the most ideologically committed. A “March Against Monsanto” protester told me recently that he could happily eat at McDonald’s every day. His confession made me laugh, and for a moment, we stopped arguing and were just two people talking about food and guilty pleasures. And, while many members of the GMO My God, That’s Tasty group try to avoid eating at Panera or shopping at Whole Foods, plenty of others say they just don’t pay attention to labels at all. I do my best to put my money where my mouth is (fingers crossed for a Gala apple from Arctic!), but give up afternoons with my Kettle chips and homemade caramelized-onion dip? Skeptic, please.