GMOs are a hot topic in the world of food. However, even though they’re frequently discussed in the mainstream, many people aren’t exactly sure what they are or why they matter. They’re also confused about how to purchase the best produce for themselves and their families. Are GMOs dangerous? Are they safe for consumption? There’s a lot of confusion out there.
But have no fear, I’m here to help demystify both of these topics and help you become a smarter shopper.
Put simply, GMOs are Genetically Modified Organisms; in other words, they’re not natural. GMOs – also known as genetically engineered organisms – are produced in a lab by removing genes from one species and subsequently inserting them into another species to achieve a desired characteristic. The most common GMO foods on the market right now include soy, corn, canola oil, sugar, zucchini, yellow squash, milk and papaya.
On the surface, it seems perfectly harmless to combine, say, two types of papaya seeds to form a new type of papaya. However, GMOs often take this idea to a whole new level by mating fish and tomato genes or corn and jellyfish genes. Crazy, right?
To add another layer to this discussion, the USDA currently doesn’t require GMO produce to be labeled, meaning it could be hiding in plain sight in your supermarket. This represents a real danger, as the rise in autoimmune diseases, infertility, gastrointestinal problems, and chronic diseases may be associated with the introduction of GMO foods. It’s also telling that the American Academy of Environmental Medicine urged all physicians to consider the role of GMO foods in the nation’s health crisis and advise their patients to avoid all GMO foods whenever possible.
Differentiating “Clean” from “Dirty”
In addition to GMOs, pesticides are another topic worth mentioning in produce discussions, and their use is more prevalent than you might think. Nearly two-thirds of the 3,015 produce samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2013 contained pesticide residues.
If you’re at all like me, your goal when choosing fruits and vegetables is to eat healthy and natural—not to eat chemicals. So to help you make smart choices, consult EWG’s “Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen” lists. EWG singles out produce with the highest pesticide loads for its Dirty Dozen list, and its Clean Fifteen list contains the produce least likely to hold pesticide residues:
The Dirty Dozen
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Imported Snap Peas
The Clean Fifteen
- Sweet Corn
- Frozen Sweet Peas
- Sweet Potatoes
And to illustrate the potential dangers of pesticides:
- A study by Cynthia Curl of the University of Washington found that people who “often or always” buy organic produce had significantly less organophosphate insecticides (which can impair brain development in children) in their urine samples, as compared to adults reporting they “rarely or never” purchase organic produce.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics reported in 2012 that pesticide exposures in early life have been linked to “pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems,” and went on to urge parents to consult “reliable resources that provide information on the relative pesticide content of various fruits and vegetables,” such as EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
Learning to Read Produce Stickers
Instead of shying away from all produce based on the risks of GMOs and pesticides, empower yourself! In addition to EWG’s lists, other helpful aids while shopping are those pesky stickers attached to each fruit and vegetable. (Yes, they actually serve a purpose other than being annoying.)
The Price Look Up (PLU) code printed on the sticker tells us a lot of things. Here are the basics:
- Four-number PLUs: If only four numbers appear on the sticker, it means the produce was grown using pesticides (not organically). The four numbers represent the fruit or vegetable type. For example, sweet corn is labeled 4078.
- Five–number PLUs, starting with eight: If the sticker has five numbers, the first of which is an eight, the produce is a GMO. So an ear of GMO sweet corn would be labeled 84078.
- Five-number PLUs, starting with 9: If the sticker has five numbers, the first of which is a nine, the produce was organically grown. So, organic sweet corn would be labeled 94078.
Smart shopping choices matter! So be sure to watch out for the “Dirty Dozen,” look for those 9’s, and eat clean!