by Stephanie Margolis, R.D.
GMO is not the obscure word and concept it was a decade ago. You may see headlines of products or restaurants offering non-GMO options. You may hear concerns of the health impact too many GMOs may have on the body. Or you may hear nothing, but have a general sense that GMOs are not necessarily a good thing. Well, let’s take a quick look at GMOs, where they live, what’s the risk, and what to consider when you’re eating away from home.
What Are GMOs?
Great question! GMO stands for genetically modified organism. This means, during the food production of an item all, or a portion, of a food’s genome is changed to create a new trait in that food. This is typically done at the crop level and then is carried with the food throughout the production process, whether that food stands alone or is used to make another food. There are also genetically engineered foods (again, happening at the crop/seed level) where scientists change the genetic code of a food (calling on high school science! think DNA, RNA, proteins). Often these terms are used interchangeably, but do not mean the same thing. For our purposes, in this article, we are going to focus on GMOs.
Why go through all this work to change the foods we eat? On macro level… mass food production. Creating more food for more people in larger amounts. Many times the modifications come as an effort to protect crops and increase their yields. For example, in 2016 the National Academies of Science created a list of the top genetically engineered seeds (that DNA gig), and found that the top crop was maize. Corn, that’s right. So scientists took the corn seed, changed its genetics to make the crop insect resistant and herbicide resistant.
It’s worth noting that writing an article on GMOs can sometimes seem like an opinion piece. As with many nutrition and food production topics, the science is still unfolding and it also depends on what is important to your family and your health. Not all GMO changes could be considered bad, with some attempting to make foods healthier. For example, some companies are experimenting with meats to be genetically modified to offer more omega-3 fatty acids. There are also organizations such as the World Health Organization which maintain a set of science-based standards, guidelines, and practices to create safe GMOs and GEs.
But Should I Give Them to My Kids (and myself)?
While the FDA and other groups have deemed these GMOs and GEs safe to eat, there’s a growing public concern that a diet high in these can be harmful to your health leading many countries to place restrictions on the practice or implement strict labelling laws. As an overall approach to healthy, it is good practice to eat as many whole, nutrient-rich foods as possible. The less processed a food is, the more likely it will not have GMOs. Most items that are non-GMO will be labelled as such, additionally, if an item is USDA Organic it is also non-GMO.
Limiting GMOs in your diet can take some work, especially if you are eating out on the reg.
Why the Concern with Fast Food?
The main reason is because the crops that top the GMO list are also widely used in the fast food (and really, the entire restaurant industry). When you are trying to serve up tasty food to the masses you look for the cheapest, most sustainable foods. This means corn, soybean, canola, potatoes, and more. Pair that with meats that are treated with antibiotics (leading some to be concerned that the human body is being over-exposed to antibiotics, which may cause antibiotic resistance further down the road) and there’s reason to pause before grabbing that next value meal.
Eating on the Run
You’re a busy mom, and cooking a meal from whole ingredients just isn’t happening every day. AND THAT’S TOTALLY OKAY! There are going to be days where you have to grab-n-go and it’s not going to be the healthiest thing. If this is something that happens rarely then do your thing and don’t worry. Put more effort into the foods you are making at home, pack healthy snacks, and ensure those are meeting your nutritional needs. However, if you find yourself in the drive thru lane a little more often then it’s time to give more thought to your food.
In many cities, there are local restaurant options that may offer non-GMO options, so scout out the menus around you and often they will boast non-GMO on their signage or website. There are only two national restaurant chains, Panera and Chipotle, who offer non-GMO foods and will label items that do contain GMOs. Chick-fil-a is also committed to serving chicken not treated with antibiotics in 2019 (at last report about 20% of their chicken was antibiotic-free).
If you are looking for snacks to pack, many items are labelled non-GMO on the front of the package. It is important to recognize that just because an item is non-GMO does not mean it’s healthy, it can still contain high amounts of sugar or calories so consider how it fits into your diet as a whole.