Shopping advice: knowing what’s in your food

How do you protect strawberries from an early frost? Some scientists choose to insert a gene from an arctic flounder so the strawberries tolerate the cold, just like the fish. That may sound a bit strange to you, and mounting evidence indicates that tinkering with nature like this might even prove harmful.

It’s not just about strawberries either. The “flounderberry” is still lab research, but there are quite a few genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that are already out on the market, on shelves, and in our homes. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, more than three quarters of all processed foods on American grocery store shelves contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients. That means that these ingredients were created through processes that combine the genetic building blocks of different species to produce new foods. In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) added GM sugar beets, a new form of GM corn and GM alfalfa to the list of GM crops that can be grown and used in food nationwide.

For shoppers, it can be hard to identify foods with GM ingredients since manufacturers aren’t required to label GM foods. This isn’t the case in Japan, Australia and Europe, where GM labeling is mandatory.

But why all the fuss over a label? Recent research indicates that GM ingredients can correspond to a host of potentially worrisome health concerns, like food allergies and gastrointestinal, reproductive and immune problems. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine has even gone so far as to encourage all physicians to prescribe non-GM diets to their patients.

While GM food labeling in the U.S. isn’t required, there are some ways consumers can currently identify non-GM foods. For example, you can look for the USDA Organic Seal. By definition, USDA-certified organic foods can’t contain GM ingredients. You can also find an abundance of non-GM options in the produce aisle since GM ingredients appear most frequently in processed foods. Only corn and some varieties of squash, papaya, sugar beets and potatoes may come in GM varieties.

In the rest of the grocery store, identifying GM foods can prove more difficult, however. That’s where the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization that supports non-GM products and helps educate consumers about them, comes in. The Non-GMO Project has a Product Verification Program through which products can become verified as non-GMO, and earn a seal on packaging that lets shoppers know the food doesn’t contain GM ingredients.

One company that has a variety of its products verified as non-GM by is Silk, the country’s largest plant-based beverage company.

“We think it’s important to ensure shoppers can distinguish non-GM products, and the Non-GMO Project is giving them a way to do that,” says Craig Shiesley, general manager of Silk. “We’ve always made our products with non-GMO soybeans, but by completing the verification process, we’re giving consumers an added level of confidence, and a way to identify that our products are produced without GM ingredients.”

The non-profit Center for Food Safety is also helping shoppers navigate the aisles with the “True Food Shopper’s Guide” app, which offers information on common GM ingredients and brands to choose or avoid.

Organizations like The Non-GMO Project and Center for Food Safety have gone a long way toward helping shoppers make informed decisions about the food they purchase, but for consumers who would like to see mandatory labeling of GM Foods, the Just Label It! We Have the Right to Know campaign offers an opportunity to make their voices heard. The initiative, supported by a broad coalition of consumers and businesses interested in food safety, including Silk and its sister company Horizon Organic, involves a petition with the USDA seeking a mandatory labeling standard for GM foods. Consumers can make a public comment in support of the petition on the campaign’s website at