Grocery shopping can be confusing when unfamiliar words are used to label foods. Below are some descriptions of common terms used on food labels and important considerations to help you navigate the grocery store aisles.
What are GMOs?
GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. They can be plants or animals that have been genetically altered, or engineered, in a way that does not occur naturally. These products have been altered to improve a specific trait. For example, apples can be genetically engineered to resist browning. Corn can be genetically engineered to be resistant to insect damage or immune to plant disease. GMOs use science to improve the DNA of organisms to help create the best genetic variations. GMOs are not regulated by the FDA and do not require labeling on foods. However, GMOs have been around since 1980 and have not been known to cause health issues.
Should I be concerned about additives?
Food additives have many roles in the food system. They are included in food products to preserve the flavor, texture, nutrition, and appearance of foods. Without food additives, products wouldn't last as long on the grocery store shelves. They also help to prevent food from making us sick by stabilizing the product for transportation. Food additives may also help prevent powdered products such as cake mixes, sugar products, and flours from developing lumps, caking, or sticking. Stabilizers, thickeners, and gelling agents prevent products from separating, ice crystals from forming, and ingredients from settling. Unlike GMOs, food additives must be approved for use by the FDA. Once approved, the FDA controls the types of foods they may be added to and how much of the additive may be used.
Is organic healthier?
Organic foods are produced following specific guidelines. Organic guidelines require foods to be produced without hormones, pesticides, irradiation, or bioengineering. Animals that are used to produce organic meat, poultry, eggs, or dairy may not be treated with growth hormones or antibiotics.
There is no evidence to suggest that organic products contain more nutrients or are overall healthier than conventional products. Compared to conventional farms, it is more expensive for farmers to create organic products and they are not able to produce as much per farm. This increased expense and decreased yield accounts for the increased price of organic products compared to conventional products.
It is important to also note that organic farms are sustainable food systems. This means they improve soil organic matter, decrease energy use, and reduce pesticide residue in food and water. Choosing organic foods may not provide more nutritional benefits, but it can be a sustainable option for the environment.
No matter what type of food you purchase, eating a balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains is the best meal pattern to follow. It's important to buy foods you're comfortable with and that fit into your budget.
Next time you're at the store, try to identify a non-GMO item, an organic food item, and a conventional item.
- Begun Rachel. What are Food Additives. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. https://www.eatright.org/food/vitamins-and-supplements/nutrient-rich-foods/what-are-food-additives. Published August 16, 2018.
- Consumer Info about Food from Genetically Engineered Plants. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/GEPlants/ucm461805.htm. Reviewed January 4, 2018.
- Organic Food: Fact vs. Perception. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/organic-food-fact-vs-perception?s=q%253Dorganic%2526sort%253Drelevancy. Reviewed April 16, 2018.
- Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives and Colors. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm094211.htm#types. Reviewed February 6, 2018.
- 6 Tips to Lighten Your Carbon Footprint. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. https://www.eatright.org/food/planning-and-prep/smart-shopping/6-tips-to-lighten-your-carbon-foodprint. Published April 22, 2019.