The conversation around GMOs — genetically modified organisms — and how they are labeled has been going on for several years. Whole Foods Market, which has just opened its new store near the UMKC campus, was an early adopter in requiring these foods to carry a label.
The grocery chain had set a deadline of this Sept. 1 for their suppliers. But in May, they decided it might be best to wait on the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its own labeling regulations.
The USDA recently released a sampling of prototype labels, along with guidelines for their use. While the agency is taking public comments until July 3, the bigger question that should be considered is what benefit the label serves.
GMO crops have been around since the 1990s. As outlined in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ review “Advanced Technology in Food Production,” they are grown by farmers in the U.S. and in 28 nations around the globe. The process involves introducing desirable traits in plants, either by selective breeding of healthy strains or by crossbreeding related species.
Ten genetically modified crops are currently approved and in commercial production in this country: soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, squash, papaya, apple and potato. In addition to these crops, a Massachusetts company has engineered salmon with a gene to regulate growth. This product is sold in Canada, but it is not available on the U.S. market.
In 2016, the National Academies of Science released a review of more than 1,000 research publications, which concluded that there was no difference between GMO and non-GMO crops in regards to nutritional value or impact on human health. As a registered dietitian, I found strong confirmation in that review of the benefits and safety of these products.
Further, a 2018 systemic review paper in The Journal of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at GE, or genetically engineered, foods — a specialized subset whose genes have been modified using technology — and found their allergenic potential is no different from that of conventional foods.
And to add to the confusion, the USDA has proposed yet another labeling term: BE, meaning bioengineered.
So the question remains: Why label GMO, GE or BE foods in the first place? And do the terms all refer to the same thing? I like to refer people to the nonprofit Council for Biotechnology Information’s GMOAnswers.com for the specifics.
In my practice, I am constantly helping my clients understand the basics of nutrition, what they need to eat to meet their health needs, and how to make the best food choices. The ongoing discussion around labeling GMO foods adds a layer of confusion — and in some cases fear — for consumers. I often hear that if something is labeled “low-fat, “sodium free” or “non-GMO,” it puts a value on the food, and influences whether shoppers purchase it.
Food labels are designed to convey basic information about what is in the product — its name, how much it weighs, where it was packaged, its ingredients and its nutritional information. When you look at that purpose you have to ask yourself: Does it matter how the food was grown? Does whether it was grown with conventional agricultural farming or with non-GMO techniques impact its nutritional value?
Based on the current body of evidence, the answer is a definitive no.
Food labels are there to help us choose the best foods for our families to ensure that we are meeting our nutritional needs. Labels with an acronym to indicate if the food has been genetically modified in some way do not impart information about its nutrition, whether it’s an allergen, or other truly important details. They provide no real benefit in helping us choose the best foods for our nutritional needs.
Connie Diekman is director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. She also serves as a volunteer expert for GMO Answers, an initiative committed to dispelling myths and misinformation around GMOs.