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Genetically modified foods hard to avoid

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Many of the candies at Candy Babel contain no GMOs.Have you eaten a genetically modified organism today?

The answer is a resounding “probably.”

Genetically engineered foods, also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are widespread in the United States — about 70 percent of processed foods contain them. The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers them safe to eat, so they’re not labeled differently from conventionally grown foods.

But there’s a growing movement to require such labeling, though it has struggled to achieve results in the face of well-financed food industry lobbying. A group called GMO Free Oregon is hoping to put a labeling law before Oregon voters next November, but it faces an uphill battle. Washington state residents recently rejected a ballot initiative that would have required labeling of GMOs, and California residents voted down a similar proposal in 2012. Both measures, like any likely Oregon initiative, were heavily contested by free-spending food manufacturers.

So how hard is it to figure out for yourself if what you’re eating is genetically engineered?

If your goal is to avoid GMOs altogether, it’s not difficult — just expensive. You can either purchase exclusively organic foods — the organic certification includes a guarantee that no genetically engineered ingredients are used — or you can move to Europe, where labeling laws are in effect.

It’s a little harder if you want to make case-by-case decisions, or just want to know for sure whether a specific item contains GMOs.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Candy Babel owner Amani Greer imports most of her candy from Europe to ensure that it doesnt include any GMOs.“It’s kind of impossible right now, without laws,” says Steve Byers, an assistant store manager at Green Zebra Grocery, which specializes in quick and healthy food. “Ideally we could have a GMO-free store, but we just can’t ... It’s in a huge percentage of what any grocery store carries.”

Some national grocery store chains are finding ways to provide customers with non-GMO choices. Both Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods store brands are GMO-free, and Whole Foods plans to label all GMOs in-store by 2018.

Locally, Portland’s New Seasons grocery chain provides shelf labels for non-GMO products, and People’s Co-op in Southeast Portland promises to “make every effort to provide our customers with products that, to the best of our knowledge, do not contain genetically engineered ingredients.”

Beyond that, a motivated consumer can do some pretty solid guesswork by reading labels carefully. Soy, corn, sugar beets, canola, and alfalfa are the main genetically engineered crops — and almost all of what is grown is genetically engineered.

Soy what?

Once a genetically engineered version of a crop plant is approved by the USDA, it tends to dominate the market. Herbicide-tolerant soybeans, for instance, grew from about 10 percent of total acreage in 1996 to 93 percent in 2013.

You might not be aware of how much soy you consume. It’s the main ingredient in soy milk, tofu and tempeh, but also can appear on labels as textured vegetable protein, vegetable starch, vegetable broth, natural flavoring, hydrolyzed plant protein and others.

Genetically modified soybeans are less likely to be used for soy milk and more likely to be used in other soy products, depending on the brand.

Some fresh foods are sold in genetically modified form, including zucchini, yellow squash and papayas. But for the most part, GMOs appear as ingredients in processed foods — as sweeteners and texture-enhancers — or second-hand, via food eaten by cows and chickens.

The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that promotes organic food, has compiled a list of foods that are likely to contain GMOs. Many are products with wide brand recognition: Kellogg’s cereals, Doritos, Kraft macaroni and cheese, Oreos, Teddy Grahams, Coke and Pepsi, Spaghetti-Os, Hershey’s chocolates.

It could almost be a rule of thumb that if you craved it as a kid, it’s been genetically engineered.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - A sales clerk weighs Mighty Mint Snowballs at Candy Babel.Non-GMO sweet tooth

That really bothers Amani Greer, who owns a candy store in Northeast Portland called Candy Babel. That’s why you won’t see many familiar, name-brand candies on her shelves.

“By picking up the candy, we are trying to have a nostalgic moment,” Greer says. “The genetically modified foods are in these candies now; they didn’t used to be.”

And she believes our bodies can tell the difference: “Eating that candy does not propel, doesn’t give you energy like candy should. I feel like it slows you down.”

She imports Haribo gummi candies from Europe, even though she could buy the same brand in the U.S., in order to avoid GMOs and artificial coloring. And she stocks less common items like giant malt balls, black licorice and homemade cotton candy that, to the best of her knowledge, don’t contain GMOs.

“It does seem like I’m being weird for the sake of being weird, but I’m not. I just want to understand what’s in the candy,” she says. “I try not to sell things I don’t understand.”

Overkill?

That kind of blanket statement doesn’t sit well with supporters of biotechnology. They see vague concerns standing in the way of innovations that could make food healthier and more affordable.

Genetically engineered technology can reduce the price of food crops like corn, soybeans and sugar beets by 15 to 30 percent, says Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

In opposing the Washington ballot initiative, his group claimed that implementing a labeling law would cost the state’s famers and food manufacturers $264 million, and would cost grocery shoppers $200 to $500 a year — as well as confuse them.

“Such a label could suggest to consumers that foods produced through modern biotechnology are somehow different or present a special risk — in clear contradiction of scientific facts,” reads a Grocery Manufacturers Association statement provided by Kennedy.

There’s a dearth of evidence that genetically engineered foods are harmful to human health. Nevertheless, numerous polls have found that more than 90 percent of Americans favor labels for genetically engineered food.

Compare that to a recent Pew Research poll that found only 44 percent of Americans support a government ban on trans fat, despite its well-documented and potentially fatal health risks.

Besides the labeling law, there are other GMO issues percolating in Oregon. Jackson County voters will decide whether to ban GMO crops altogether in May 2014. And following the last-minute passage of a law that prevented Multnomah and other counties from doing the same, Gov. John Kitzhaber has promised to address GMO labeling and planting issues on a statewide basis.

So is there more controversy ahead? Probably.