by Stephanie Margolis, R.D.
Updated July 13, 2022
Eating on the run is a part of life, and we have tips to help you do it in a healthier way!
GMO is not the obscure acronym and concept it was a decade ago. You may see products at the grocery store or restaurants offering “non-GMO” options. You may hear concerns of the health impact too many GMOs may have on the body. You may have a general sense that GMOs are not necessarily a good thing. Or you may hear nothing and not be thinking about this aspect of your diet.
To make matters more confusing, the USDA is now using the term “bioengineered.” As of January 1, 2022, food manufacturers are now required to label foods in grocery stores as “BE” or bioengineered. Bioengineered is defined as: “those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.”
For our purposes, we’ll continue to use “GMOs,” as that’s still the most common and well known term. So let’s take a look at GMOs: where you’ll find them, if they pose a risk, and what to consider when you’re eating away from home.
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. Genetically engineered (GE) foods are altered (also at the seed/plant level) to change the genetic code of a food (calling on high school science! think DNA, RNA, proteins). Often these terms are used interchangeably. Bioengineered now falls under this umbrella.
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.
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. Many countries 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. Additionally, if an item is certified USDA Organic it is also non-GMO.
Limiting GMOs in your diet can take some work, especially if you are eating out on the regular.
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 ingredients and ones that won’t spoil easily. That’s why you’ll frequently see ingredients like corn, soy, canola, potatoes, and sugar (derived from sugar beets) — which are almost always GMO derived. These show up in frying oil, breading, bread/buns, sauces, salad dressings, and more.
Also when we eat out, even when we are making “healthier choices,” there is typically more sodium, poor-quality fats, and hidden sugars in the foods we consume, which can lead to bloating and inflammation. To top that off not having the nutrients that fight inflammation — those antioxidants found in fruits and veggies – doubles the impact of the less healthy choices.
Another consideration: meats that aren’t organic are likely treated with antibiotics. There is growing concern that the human body is being over-exposed to antibiotics, which may cause antibiotic resistance further down the road. This may be another reason to pause before grabbing that next value meal.
All off this is not to say you can never get takeout (you know we’re all about balance around here!). But when you order the pizza, pair it with a colorful salad. Maybe consider bringing your own salad dressing. Little things can make a difference.
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 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 and look for “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.
Updated July 2022