Understanding Genetically Engineered Foods

Understanding genetically engineered foods and how to take action at the checkout register

By Elizabeth Blessing, MSN, co-founder and chief nutritionist of Green BEAN Delivery

The defeat of Prop. 37 by California voters on Election Day in November sent shock waves across the food and agricultural industries. Prop. 37 was a measure that required the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) food. Had the bill been passed it would have:

  1. Required labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if the food is made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.
  2. Prohibited labeling or advertising such food as “natural.”
  3. Exempted from these requirements foods that are certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages.

While Prop. 37 failed in California, consumers across the country can take action at the checkout register by purchasing USDA certified organic foods and learning more about the issue.

What are genetically engineered foods?

GE or GMO (genetically modified organism) foods are organisms that have been created through gene-splicing techniques of biotechnology or genetic engineering. This technique allows DNA from one species to be injected into another in a laboratory, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.

Since these genes do not occur in nature, our body reacts to these proteins when we consume them. There are three possible sources of adverse health effects from GM foods:

  1. A toxic or allergenic GE gene product.
  2. Production of new toxins or allergens and/or disturbance of nutritional value in the seed during the GE transformation process.
  3. Environmental contamination from the GE seed through cross pollination.

Studies have shown that GE foods can be toxic and/or allergenic to laboratory and farm animals. Most of these studies have been short- or medium-term. Long-term studies are needed to see if these negative results of GE food consumption in the short- and medium-term studies develop into serious diseases. Because of these health and environmental concerns, GE foods and packaging made with GE foods (i.e. GE corn to make plastic containers) is required in 50 countries worldwide, including all of the European Union, China, Japan and Russia.

With 70 to 80 percent of processed foods sold in the U.S. containing genetically engineered ingredients such as corn, soybeans and sugar beets, the passing of Prop. 37 would have helped consumers make informed decisions about what foods they want to feed their families. Genetically engineered products are the only products consumers unintentionally purchase without knowing what they are buying.

While the failure of Prop. 37 seems like a defeat, it’s far from the truth. The “Yes on 37” campaign created huge awareness about GE foods in California and nationally. More than four million voters in California voted in favor of Prop. 37, which is 47 percent of all voters. It also forced the companies that supported “No on 37” to spend $45 million to defeat the bill. This record amount of expenditure by these companies made many people ask themselves, “Why are these big companies trying to hide what they put into our food system?”

And there’s more good news. You can vote with your dollar every day. Buying USDA certified organic foods ensures that your family is not eating GE foods. According to the strict organic guidelines, foods labeled “certified organic” must be free from genetic engineering. The organic certification also goes much further than what Prop. 37 would have required. Organic meat, milk and eggs must come from animals that were not treated with GE hormones but were fed a diet that is free of GE ingredients.

Prop. 37 did not require a label on meat, milk and eggs. Alcoholic beverages were also exempt from Prop. 37. Another way to make sure you are getting safe, high-quality food is to look for the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label. You can visit the project’s website at www.nongmoproject.org to find out which products, restaurants and retailers participate in the Non-GMO verification.

The war on GMO labeling has just begun in the U.S. More people are speaking out and demanding that GMOs are labeled. Twenty-three states are working on mandatory labeling laws and more than 1.3 million signatures are on the FDA petition demanding mandatory labeling. Help do your part by spreading the word and voting with your dollar.

To stay up to date on the latest food and nutrition news, or to get recipe ideas, check out Green BEAN Delivery’s Healthy Times blog.

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Elizabeth Blessing

Elizabeth Blessing is co-founder and chief nutritionist of Green BEAN Delivery. Originally from Noblesville, Ind., Elizabeth has a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Indiana University and a Master of Science in Nutrition from Bastyr University. After graduating from Bastyr, she worked as a nutrition educator for Washington State University King County Extension’s Food $ense Program. While at Food $ense, she co-authored nutrition education curriculum. Now Elizabeth is the on-site Nutritionist and a Food Service instructor at The Chef’s Academy, the Indiana Business College’s culinary school. Get her nutrition tips and recipes each week on the Healthy Times blog.
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