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How to avoid genetically engineered foods

Push a cart down the supermarket aisle. You’ll find products bragging, “No Carbs!,� “Reduced Fat!,� or “Vitamin-Enriched!� in less time than it takes to burn a few calories.

But if you’re looking for foods without genetically engineered ingredients, your search probably won’t be so simple.

The United States federal government refuses to require safety testing or labeling for GE foods, leaving concerned consumers on their own to determine which products are GMO-free. Though the recent Measure Q brought the question of growing of GE crops into popular debate, for most Americans GE foods are already a regular part of their diet, knowingly or not.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture estimates 70 percent of processed foods contain GE ingredients. Genetically engineered crops were first grown commercially in 1996. Not all shoppers, however, are comfortable with this rapid proliferation from experimental farm field to the kitchen table.

In February 2002, the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit public interest organization, compiled 17 national public opinion polls regarding GE foods. The polls, taken between 1995 and 2001, indicated between 81 and 93 percent of Americans support labeling GE foods.

Between one-quarter and nearly two-thirds of respondents would avoid purchasing GE products if they were labeled as such. Nevertheless, they’re not. What’s a discerning eater, then, to do?

Go organic. The simplest way to eat GE-free is to buy organically grown produce and processed foods made from organic ingredients.

“Nowhere in the world will organic standards allow the use of GMOs,� said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the nonprofit Organic Consumers Association.

Organic food is grown without using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. It is easily found in health food stores, and is beginning to sprout up in corporate chain supermarkets too, such as Safeway and Albertson’s.

Buying organic produce at farmers’ markets or joining a CSA, a direct farmer-to-consumer interaction where members receive a weekly box of organic fruits, veggies, and sometimes flowers, saves money for consumers and is a more economically viable market for farmers.

Contrary to popular myth, choosing organically grown food is not necessarily more expensive than buying foods grown with chemicals. Cummins says it’s largely a matter of acknowledging the hidden costs of conventional foods.

“We’re paying for it with tax subsidies, with environmental problems
like water pollution, with increased
medical bills,� he said. “Organic food is actually much cheaper when you add up the full costs.�

Know your ingredients. Cummins said, “Pretty much any processed food that contains corn or corn derivatives, soy or soybean derivatives, cottonseed oil, or canola is going to contain GMOs.�

Check out your kitchen pantry. How many products have corn syrup, canola oil, or partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil listed as ingredients? How about lecithin, a stabilizer derived from soybeans? Corn, flour, or perhaps corn starch?

Ellen Kittredge, outreach director for the Center for Food Safety, explains why even more than 70 percent of non-organic processed foods could easily contain GMOs.

“Even though not all the canola or corn in this country is GE,� she said, “it’s not separated in the elevators. It all gets mixed together. Basically, there may be higher or lower levels of contamination, but it’s very likely to be contaminated.�

Cummins agreed, adding that approximately 11 percent of organic corn farmers in the U.S. have detected GMO seed in their crops. Though no GE whole foods are currently sold on a commercial scale, some argue dairy products require similar scrutiny.

In 1993, the Food and Drug Administration approved a GE-protein called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Patented by Monsanto, rBGH increases milk production by 10 to 15 percent in dairy cows. It’s also been shown to elevate levels of insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1), an insulin-like human growth hormone naturally occurring in milk and affecting cell division in the human body.

Some scientists warn that higher levels could stimulate tumor growth and progress prostate and breast cancer. Organic dairies do not allow rBGH and some non-organic manufacturers of milk products refuse to use it as well, such as Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and Alta Dena. Look for dairy products labeled rBGH- or rBST (somatotropin)-free.

Know your brands. The Organic Consumers Association has identified 15 major corporations using GE ingredients: Kellogg’s, Campbell’s, Nestle, Kraft, Frito-Lay, Hershey, Starbucks, Proctor and Gamble, General Mills, Quaker Oats, McDonalds, Nabisco, Safeway, Heinz Foods, and Coca-Cola. Most of these corporations own several brands. For example, Campbell’s, producers of that familiar red-and-white soup can found in over two-thirds of American homes, also owns Pepperidge Farms and Prego spaghetti sauce, among many others.

Even healthy alternatives such as several kinds of veggie burgers often contain GEs, according to the Center for Food Safety.

Other brands are labeling their
products “GE-free� even though it is not required by law. The Hain Food Group is one, with a “Pure Food� symbol. Some chain supermarkets have jumped
on the anti-GE bandwagon, too. Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Wild Oats all claim to source non-GE ingredients for their private labels.

Get further information. On the web, an extensive list of companies and brand names for non-GE items can be found at www.safe-food.org/-consumer/brands.html. ³

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