What You Should Know About Genetically Modified Foods

You have the right to know what's in the food products you buy, but you can't know if it's not on the label.

Genetically modified (GM) or engineered, foods have been scientifically altered to develop more desirable traits. These traits might include better resistance to destructive insects in the field, or increased nutritional value. While these seem like admirable goals, the technology that supports them is controversial. Equally controversial is the GM food labeling program, which allows consumers to choose between foods that do and do not contain GM ingredients. That program is almost nonexistent in the United States.

Many foods that are commonly consumed in the United States in some form, notably soybeans, canola, and corn, have been genetically modified. That means most products and ingredients made from these foods, such as soy protein, canola oil, and corn syrup, also contain genetically modified organisms. In fact, approximately 60 to 70 percent of all processed foods in the supermarket are thought to include at least one genetically modified ingredient, according to Colorado State University Extension Services.

International standards have been developed to provide labeling guidance to food manufacturers who produce or use GM foods. In many areas of the world, including Australia, Japan, China, and throughout the European Union, GM food labeling is required. In the United States, it is voluntary. That means you are more likely to see labels that say "no genetically modified ingredients" on a food product than one that says "contains genetically modified soybean oil," for instance.

While there is no evidence that genetically modified foods pose a greater overall risk to consumers than any other foods, some of these products have been associated with allergic reactions and other illness in animals and humans. If you're concerned, here's what you need to know.

In the United States, three government organizations oversee the regulation of genetically modified foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees research and potential problems in the field, such as the spread of GM traits to other plants or crops. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees the sale and distribution of plants that produce their own pesticides and herbicides, such as certain types of GM corn and cotton. Finally, the Food and Drug Administration oversees the safety of GM (as well as non-GM) foods and has the authority to remove questionable products from the market.

The FDA only requires labeling of GM foods if there is a significant change in the nutritional content, or the new food contains an allergen, such as peanut or soy protein, that wouldn't otherwise be in that food, or if the food contains unacceptable amounts of a known toxin. Because surveys indicated that GM and GMO (genetically modified organisms) are not familiar terms to consumers, the FDA recommends that food manufacturers use language such as, "This product contains cornmeal that was produced using biotechnology."

What you are more likely to see on product labels, if you see anything at all, is wording that emphasizes no use of GM ingredients, such as, "This oil is made from soybeans that were not genetically engineered."

The rationale against labeling GM foods is that it implies a health problem where one most likely does not exist and the high cost of new labeling, which would carry over to the consumer. Colorado University researchers found that while almost 80 percent of consumers surveyed supported mandatory labeling, most were not willing to pay for it.



Center for Food Safety: Genetically Engineered Crops Web. 14 Jul 2011

Colorado State University: Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods Web. 14 Jul 2011

Food and Drug Administration: Guidance for Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not Been Developed Using Bioengineering; Draft Guidance Jan 2001 Web. 14 Jul 2011


University of California: Safety of Genetically Engineered Food. 2006 Web 14 July 2011

Schneider, K. and Schneider, R.G. "Genetically Modified Food" University of Florida IFAS Extension Web 14 July 2011