During our recent stretch of rainy weather, I spent a Saturday afternoon in the kitchen experimenting with new recipes.
I was pulling out of my pantry all the ingredients to make sugar cookies, and I noticed a label on the can of baking powder that read: “Made from a bioengineered food.”
That’s when I remembered that, while I’ve been busy adapting to parenting and daily life in a pandemic, there was a change in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) GMO food label regulations earlier this year.
Are GMO labels required in the U.S.?
The U.S. Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law in 2016, directing the USDA to establish a national standard for disclosing foods that are or may be bioengineered. The USDA mandated the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard on Jan. 1, 2022. The standard requires food companies to ensure bioengineered ingredients are appropriately disclosed, either through text, a symbol or a digital link on food packaging.
The USDA defines bioengineered foods as those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.
What is bioengineered food?
Although you may not be familiar with “bioengineered” foods (I know it’s new to me), you likely have heard these products called GMOs – or genetically modified – foods.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the first consumer GMO product dates back to the mid-1980s, with the federal approval of human insulin to treat diabetes.
U.S. farmers started planting GMO soybeans in the mid-1990s. Today, only a few types of GMO crops are grown in the United States, including soybeans, corn, alfalfa and sugar beets here in the Upper Midwest.
Most GMO crops are bred to be resistant to insect pests or to tolerate herbicides. They help farmers prevent crop and food loss and control weeds, while minimizing the impact on the environment.
These GMO plants are often used to make ingredients that are then used in other food products - for example, cornstarch made from GMO corn or sugar made from GMO sugar beets.
What foods are GMOs?
As for my can of baking powder, it contains cornstarch, which is likely made from GMO corn. That’s why it was labeled, “Made from a bioengineered food.”
Now that I was curious, I started searching my kitchen for other examples of the new bioengineered food labels.
My oatmeal is labeled “partially produced with genetic engineering.” The squeeze cheese-in-a-can that my daughter loves with crackers is labeled “contains a bioengineered food ingredient.”
The crackers in my pantry feature a “Smartlabel” QR code, which I could scan on my phone to link up to the food company’s website for more information.
Are organic foods GMO free?
The USDA doesn’t have a standard for GMO-free labels, so any “Non-GMO” labels you see on food packaging are marketing.
The exceptions are foods that are USDA certified organic, which are required by law to be non-GMO. I also noticed a can of green beans in my pantry with a label for the USDA’s Non-GMO Process Verification Program, which is a voluntary program for food companies to certify their marketing claims.
However, I should note that green beans aren’t a GMO food, as are most foods in my pantry labeled non-GMO (popcorn; frozen fruits and vegetables; my shaving cream, for some reason, even though it isn’t a food).
Again, only a few types of GMO crops are approved in the United States. Non-GMO labels are about marketing, not about food safety.
Are GMOs safe?
My bioengineered food scavenger hunt in the kitchen turned out to be a fun diversion on a rainy day.
However, I want to stress – nothing about our food has changed. It’s the same can of baking powder as I’ve bought before, just with a new label.
We’ve actually been eating bioengineered foods for almost 30 years now. Hundreds of research studies have confirmed the safety of GMO foods.
Why do we need GMOs?
As we learned during the pandemic, advances in biotechnology offer tremendous potential to benefit human health – including the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
I think that’s why the new bioengineered food labels turned out to be a non-event in the media when they became mandatory earlier this year.
After pandemic-related food shortages and rising food prices, we have a greater appreciation for the abundance and safety of the U.S. food supply – and the work of farmers to grow our food.
And we need all the tools available to ensure the safety and accessibility of food for our communities and our families.
For more information, the FDA has a fantastic website, called Feed Your Mind, to answer your questions about GMO labeling and food safety. I highly recommend you check it out – especially if you’re looking for something to do on a rainy day.