New Consumer Reports’ tests find genetically modified organisms in many packaged foods—including those labeled ‘natural’
More than 70 percent of Americans say they don’t want genetically modified organisms in their food, according to a recent Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of 1,000 adults. The trouble is, it’s hard to avoid them. Consumer Reports’ tests of breakfast cereals, chips, soy infant formulas, and other popular products found that GMOs lurk in many packaged foods—including some that carry labels suggesting that they don’t have these controversial ingredients.
In more than 60 countries, manufacturers must label foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. But GMO labeling isn’t required in the U.S. Yet our survey found that 92 percent of Americans want genetically modified foods to be labeled. And concerns about the potential health and environmental risks of GMOs coupled with an unwillingness on the part of the federal government to mandate labeling are leading many states to take action on their own.
Vermont recently passed legislation requiring GMO labeling, and similar actions are being considered in more than two dozen other states, including Colorado and Oregon, where residents will begin voting on a GMO-labeling ballot initiative in late October. “Federal law already requires labeling that lets consumers know whether foods have been previously frozen, made from concentrate, pasteurized, or irradiated, and we believe the label should also say if food is genetically engineered,” says Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports.
What are GMOs, anyway?
Genetically modified organisms are created by deliberately changing the genetic makeup of a plant or animal in ways that could never occur in nature. The majority of GMO crops currently on the market have been genetically engineered to produce their own pesticides and/or withstand herbicides that normally would kill them. Farmers use the herbicides to control weeds.
You may be surprised to know that the federal government has not mandated that genetically modified organisms be proved safe before they’re used in your food. But safety assessments are mandatory in other major developed countries, including China, Japan, and the countries of the European Union. Some animal studies suggest that GMOs may cause damage to the immune system, liver, and kidneys. “There hasn’t been enough research to determine whether GMOs are harmful to people,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., senior scientist at Consumers Union and an authority on genetic engineering. “But scientists around the world agree that GMOs have the potential to introduce allergens and create other unintended changes that may affect health.”
The use of genetically modified seeds has steadily grown over the last two decades. That has led to about a 10-fold increase in farmers’ use of glyphosate, a weedkiller better known as Roundup, which is made by Monsanto—a company that also produces genetically modified seeds—because the herbicide won’t harm their GMO crops. But that in turn has created a new problem for farmers to battle: a rising number of “superweeds” that have now become immune to glyphosate. “This defeats one of the major reasons why GMOs were introduced in the first place,” Hansen says.
The food industry’s take
Companies that produce genetically modified organisms and their allies in the food industry argue that genetic engineering is just an extension of traditional breeding, which humans have been doing for thousands of years. But that process involves the transfer of DNA between closely related plants or animals. Genetic engineering techniques, on the other hand, move genetic material from any organism to any other organism.
There is fierce opposition to GMO labeling from many seed manufacturers and big food companies, which have spent nearly $70 million in California and Washington state alone to defeat GMO-labeling ballot initiatives. One of the major arguments they make is that stamping foods with a statement such as “contains GMO ingredients” implies that those foods are inferior to other conventional or organic foods when there’s no evidence that genetically modified organisms are harmful. “Our position is that GMO foods should be labeled, period,” Halloran says. “Consumers have the right to know what’s in their food so that they can make informed choices.”
GMOs are found in surprising places
GMO labeling should be required in the U.S., but in the meantime some food manufacturers are choosing not to use genetically modified ingredients and are noting that on their products’ packaging. To see how many foods have GMOs and whether you can trust the claims you see on food packages, we bought more than 80 different processed foods containing corn or soy between April and July 2014. (Corn and soy are the two most widely grown genetically engineered crops in the U.S.) We tested at least two samples of each product, each sample from a different lot, to measure the GMO content. Then we compared our results with any non-GMO-related claims.
Genetically modified corn and soy are used in a wide variety of foods. Nearly all of the samples we tested of the products that did not make any non-GMO-related claim on the package did, in fact, contain substantial amounts of genetically modified corn or soy. They included many familiar foods, such as Kellogg’s Froot Loops, General Mills Corn Chex, Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, Doritos Oven Baked Nacho Cheese chips, and Boca Original Vegan Veggie Burgers. Four of the products in this group were soy-based infant formulas: Enfamil ProSobee Soy Infant Formula, Gerber Good Start Soy, Similac Soy Isomil, and Similac Go & Grow Soy Infant formula.
Because our tests represented only a small slice of the market, we can’t draw conclusions about all products containing corn or soy, or about every product for a given brand. But until genetically modified organism labeling becomes mandatory, our test results can help you decode the meaning behind the claims you see on grocery store shelves.
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