Health and environmental concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have many people looking for non-GMO foods to enjoy.
But what's the real difference between GMO and non-GMO foods? And is it really worth worrying about? We dug into the research and interviewed experts to answer everything you want to know about GMO and non-GMO foods.
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What Are GMO Foods?
Put simply, GMOs are living things that have had their DNA changed. A gene or two from some other organism has been inserted into the DNA of a GMO, according to the Purdue University College of Agriculture.
When it comes to the foods and drinks we buy, this may mean scientists have altered the crop's DNA to change its taste — but more often they've altered a plant's resistance to pests or disease or improved crop yield.
In the U.S., these foods include, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA):
- Non-browning apple varieties
- Pink pineapple
- Insect-resistant corn
- Herbicide-resistant sugar beets
- Disease-resistant potatoes
- Summer squash
Non-GMOs, on the other hand, are all other foods that have not had DNA of other organisms inserted — even if they have been bred with other plants (like cotton candy grapes). Most of the foods grown and eaten in the U.S. are non-GMOs, in fact.
"Non-GMOs are organisms that have not been directly genetically modified using synthetic biology techniques and other biotechnologies," says Bryan Quoc Le, PhD, food scientist, food industry consultant and author of 150 Food Science Questions Answered. "Non-GMOs can be produced with different genetic and phenotypic features, such as through conventional plant breeding," he says.
What Are the Benefits of Non-GMO Foods?
There are several myths circulating that non-GMO foods are more nutritious than their GMO counterparts, but the research doesn't support this. "There are no known studies that have shown non-GMO foods pose any benefit to human nutrition compared to [GMO] foods," Quoc Le says. Most GMOs are created to grow more or healthier crops, not more or less nutritious options compared to non-GMO picks.
That said, some GMO crops are actually more nutritious than their non-GMO counterparts, according to the University of Michigan School of Public Health. For example Golden Rice, grown in sub-Saharan Africa, can meet 50 percent of a person's daily needs for vitamin A in just one cup. It's one of many GMOs specifically engineered to help combat nutrient deficiencies (although it is not currently available in the U.S.).
Some people worry GMOs could lead to unintended hybrid plants if they mix with nearby wild plants or weeds, thereby risking potential environmental effects. On the flip side, that could mean non-GMO crops may pose less of a threat to changing the genetics of surrounding plants.
But more research is needed to fully understand those possibilities, per a February 2015 article in Transgenic Research. Even traditional plant breeding methods could pose the very same risks, Quoc Le says.
Is GMO Labeling Required in the U.S.?
Although the debate about the effects of GMOs rages on, many people choose to limit their intake of these foods. In fact, 41 percent of consumers consider whether foods have GMOs before making a purchase, per a June 2018 survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation.
But how do you find that information on food labels? As of January 2022, genetically modified food products must be identified, according to the USDA, but it won't say GMO. Instead, that ID comes in the form of a seal that says "bioengineered" or "derived from bioengineering."
"Bioengineered" essentially means GMO. The USDA defines the foods "as those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature."
The government put this law in place for manufacturers, importers and certain retailers; restaurant foods and foods containing 5 percent or less of each bioengineered ingredient are exempt, according to Oklahoma State University. Plus, the choice of wording — leaving out "genetically modified" in favor of "bioengineered" — may confuse some shoppers, according to the non-profit The Non-GMO Project.
Finding Non-GMO Foods
While looking for the "bioengineered" or "derived from bioengineering" symbol on products can help you determine which foods contain GMOs, you can also look for labels specifically created for non-GMO foods.
The Non-GMO Project verifies food products are free from GMOs and their butterfly "non-GMO Project Verified" label can be found on a large variety of foods, including:
- Alternative dairy products
- Baked goods
- Baby products
- Pet products
Keep in mind most fruits and vegetables sold in the U.S. are non-GMO, even if they don't have a label on them, per the USDA. The exception for fruits includes some varieties of apples, papaya and pineapple and the exception for vegetables includes some varieties of eggplant, potatoes, squash, sugar beets and most varieties of soybeans and corn.
Cornmeal is, in fact, the only GMO grain in the U.S. All other grains are non-GMO grains including wheat, barley, oats, millet, quinoa, rice and rye, among others.
While the term "organic" is broader than "non-GMO," any organic produce or food is also guaranteed to also be non-GMO, according to the Center for Food Safety.
Another way to avoid GMOs is to know which foods are most commonly genetically modified. The FDA reports that corn, soybeans and cotton are the most common GMOs in the country.
This means that anything with ingredients derived from these crops is also likely to be genetically modified (unless they are labeled as organic or non-GMO), including:
- Corn starch
- Corn syrups
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Soybean oil
Is a Food GMO if It Doesn't Say 'Non-GMO'?
Foods that are plastered with a non-GMO seal of approval have paid for that labeling after undergoing a verification process from the Non-GMO Project. Many non-GMO foods available to you are not labeled as non-GMO.
Any foods that do contain bioengineered ingredients will be labeled as such without having to undergo any verification process, making it easier to determine which foods are non-GMO foods if you wish.
What Else Should I Know About GMO Food Products?
Feeding a growing human population is no small feat, especially with the dangers of frost, pests and disease regularly threatening our crops. Bioengineered or GMO crops make it possible to produce more food with less risk of crop loss at a more economical price.
But because this technology is still relatively new, only future research can help determine for certain any long-term effects of these foods.
When it comes to the environment, GMO crops are often mass-produced in a mono-crop agriculture setting, says Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES, a dietitian in northern Virginia. These large plots of land become depleted of their nutrients and the soil health declines quickly, according to the European Commission.
"While we don't yet have a better solution to feeding the world without mono-crop agriculture, it's something to consider when you're sourcing and purchasing your goods," Thomason adds.
- International Food Information Council Foundation: "IFIC Foundation Survey"
- Purdue University College of Agriculture: "What are GMOs?"
- Center for Food Safety: "Fruits & Vegetables"
- Food and Drug Administration: "Consumer Info About Food from Genetically Engineered Plants"
- Transgenic Research: "Genetic basis and detection of unintended effects in genetically modified crop plants"
- USDA: "Bioengineering Disclosure"
- University of Michigan School of Public Health: "GMOs: Where We Stand Nutritionally"
- Journal of Agrobiotechnology Management and Economics: "The Cost of a GMO-Free Market Basket of Food in the United States"
- FDA: "GMO Crops in the U.S."
- OSU: "New Food Labeling Standards Bioengineered Foods"