Certified non-GMO food labels may put our minds at ease when we visit the store, but are these foods and products actually worth buying?
Usually they cost more than GMO items that have comparable nutritional value and do not spoil as quickly.
Like with many consumer conundrums, there isn’t a right or wrong choice. It comes down to what your priorities are, the brand in question and how much you’re willing to spend.
The first step is making an informed decision by understanding exactly what it means for a food or product to be certified non-GMO. There are a few respectable standards and labels to look for. One is a verification from the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization that incentivizes brands to refrain from using genetically modified organisms [GMOs] in their agricultural and product development processes. Most goods verified by the Non-GMO Project display a logo with the name of the organization printed next to a simple illustration of an orange butterfly perched on a blade of grass.
Several years ago the Agricultural Marketing Service, a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, [USDA] launched its Process Verified Program, an initiative that includes vetting of companies that claim their products are non-GMO. Like the Non-GMO Project, verified products may display a label. In this case the image features a red, white and blue shield with “USDA Process Verified” written across it.
The text is the same for all marketing claims approved by the program. Unless the product mentions being non-GMO, it’s hard to know if the USDA logo is relevant. At this point the Non-GMO Project label is more important if you want the highest level of assurance.
Approach other labels and claims with healthy skepticism. Without any legitimate form of certification, some brands create non-GMO insignias for marketing purposes, according to Jim Tonkin, Head of Healthy Brand Builders.
There are also instances where the non-GMO claim is technically true but is not highlighting any real value. Take the case of non-GMO olive oil. This label would mean something if there were brands of GMO olive oil, but there aren’t. It would be like saying water is non-GMO. Of course it is. It’s water.
For purists, however, even the legitimate labels might not not be enough. The Non-GMO Project verification doesn’t mean a product is completely free of material with artificially modified genes. Meat from animals that have eaten food with GMOs, for example, can still be considered non-GMO as long as the meat itself is not genetically modified.
Verified manufacturers are also allowed to use GMO “inputs” at small percentages. These ingredients include seeds, fertilizers pesticides and herbicides. Pesticides in particular have been controversial, and there is evidence that some pesticide chemicals might contribute to children developing health problems.
Nonetheless, non-GMO products are generally less risky for your health because they tend to be USDA organic and are not associated with controversial GMO corporations such as Monsanto. Buying non-GMO often means supporting ethical farmers who are struggling to compete with GMOs that can produce higher yield at lower cost. Sometimes GMOs contaminate organic crops, making it even more difficult for these farmers to succeed.
It’s not like all GMO brands are destructive, though.
“There are so many types of GMOs that one cannot compare Dan Barber’s hybrid squash to Monsanto corn seed,” said Jennifer Kaplan, an author and Professor of Food Systems at The Culinary Institute of America.
Chef and businessman Dan Barber is one of the many people who has proved GMOs can be as healthy as their counterparts, and without negatively impacting the environment, consumer health or the agricultural industry. Another example is Okanagan Specialty Fruits, producer of the Arctic apple, a GMO crop that lasts longer than normal apples.
Some GMO foods can have increased nutritional value, according to Stephanie Simms Hodges, a registered dietician. Hodges cited Golden Rice, a GMO iteration of rice that contains increased amounts of Vitamin A that can prevent poor eyesight and blindness in children.
If you are trying to figure out if non-GMO foods and products are worth buying, it might be best to conduct research on each brand you encounter. There are, however, some general pros and cons.
Certified non-GMO goods are often a little more expensive, and their nutritional value is usually about the same as GMO competitors. Really what you’re paying for is the likelihood that your purchase is supporting an industry that is on average more ethical and sustainable. There are also less health risks associated with organic and non-GMO goods. If those benefits matter to you more than price, the choice is clear.
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