Unless you grow your own garden-fresh produce, it's often difficult to determine where your vegetables come from. To further complicate matters, virtually all of today's veggies come from seeds that were modified in some way, affecting the nutritional value. Hybrid vegetables and genetically modified versions are bred in very different ways, however, and knowing the difference will help you make an informed decision in the produce aisle.
Two Distinct Techniques
While hybrid crops come from two similar parent plants -- such as two tomato strains -- and are bred with low-tech methods, genetically modified crops are created in labs by splicing genes from unrelated species; for example, a GM tomato may contain salmon genes. Hybrid crops may be bred for flavor and hardiness, while GM crops are often bred for resistance to pests or drought. Farmers have practiced hybrid techniques since the beginning of the agriculture era, and modern methods were developed in the mid-19th century. In contrast, GM foods didn't hit store shelves until the mid-1990s.
Hybrids and Nutrition
Because hybrid vegetables are often selected for sweetness, they tend to be higher in sugar and lower in nutrients than nonhybrid crops. For example, the pale, sweet corn you're most familiar with has more sugar and less beta carotene -- which your body converts to vitamin A -- than the deep-yellow corn of years past. In general, hybrid practices have significantly reduced levels of phytonutrients -- plant nutrients -- in conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, according to a 2013 article in "The New York Times."
GM Crops and Health
Genetically modifying vegetables can also alter nutrient content, although GM crops are typically created to have similar nutritional profiles to conventional ones, according to the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Statewide Biotechnology Workgroup. However, some experts fear that GM crops may have diminished nutrition and increased toxins and may even cause allergies or create antibiotic-resistant germs, according to the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Because GM crops are so new, it may be years before researchers fully understand how they affect human health.
Hybrid crops are standard in the produce section, but if you prefer less tinkering, you can look for wild vegetables, such as wild arugula, or those marked "heirloom," such as heirloom tomatoes. To qualify as an heirloom product, the seeds must not have been crossbred for at least 40 years. Avoiding GM vegetables is somewhat easier, as today's genetically modified food crops are limited to corn, soy, canola, sugar beets, zucchini and crookneck squash, according to Carole Bartolotto, R.D. To ensure a non-GM product, look for the term "USDA Organic" or "Non-GMO Project Verified" when buying these items as well as products that may contain them, such as tortilla chips or anything sweetened with corn syrup.
- PBS POV: Genetically Modified Foods
- Mother Earth News: Hybrid Seeds vs. GMOs
- National Geographic: Food: How Altered?
- Quest: The Science of Sustainability: Tomatoes: Heirlooms vs. Hybrids
- Huffington Post: How to Avoid Genetically Modified Foods -- And Take Your Power Back
- The New York Times: Breeding the Nutrition out of Our Food
- UCBiotech.org: Do Genetically Engineered Foods Have Changes in Nutritional Content?
- University of Minnesota School of Public Health: Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)