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Why ‘GMO-free’ is a marketing ploy you shouldn’t fall for

When restaurant chains ditch artificial ingredients and flavors, are they doing it to benefit their customers or their bottom line? (Video: Julio Negron and Jayne W. Orenstein/The Washington Post)
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A lot of companies are changing their recipes to remove genetically modified organisms and "unnatural" ingredients, and plenty of customers think that's great news. But these moves play more on irrational fear than they do on actual science, and basing all your food choices on avoiding "unnatural" ingredients may not be as healthy as you'd think.

[Why we’re so scared of GMOs, according to someone who has studied them since the start]

You can read more about the haphazard case against GMOs in this recent takedown by Slate, but here's the gist: To label "GMOs" as being universally safe or unsafe is misguided. They're not a kind of food. Genetic modification is a way of making food -- and one that's been used, in various forms, for many years and to great success. From Slate:

The people who push GMO labels and GMO-free shopping aren’t informing you or protecting you. They’re using you. They tell food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants to segregate GMOs, and ultimately not to sell them, because people like you won’t buy them. They tell politicians and regulators to label and restrict GMOs because people like you don’t trust the technology. They use your anxiety to justify GMO labels, and then they use GMO labels to justify your anxiety. Keeping you scared is the key to their political and business strategy.

Meanwhile, the obsession with avoiding GMOs ignores a lot of food-safety nuance. One big example is Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium commonly known as Bt, which is used as a pesticide. When plants are genetically engineered to produce it themselves, consumers actually ingest less of it than when farmers spray the bacteria onto un-engineered plants. So arguing against creating plants that produce Bt is actually quite misguided -- if you believe that GMO plants that produce Bt are dangerous, then the spray-on pesticide you'll get as an alternative is even more so.

[Proof he’s the Science Guy: Bill Nye is changing his mind about GMOs]

Oh, and Chipotle is already being sued for their misleading anti-GMO marketing campaign: Their soft drinks aren't GMO-free, and their livestock eat feed with GMOs in it. Which is fine. But it does raise some serious questions about just how much companies like this actually care about making their food "safe" from these supposedly dangerous ingredients. 

“If they really wanted to improve people’s health, they should worry a lot more about the salt and fat in their burritos than a little bit of soybean oil and a little cornmeal,” Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told The Post in May.

The same holds true with a lot of the other recipe changes major companies have been making -- removing dyes, changing sweeteners, and so on. Several of these changes -- the removal of a harmless chemical in Subway's bread that happens to also be present in yoga mats, and the switch from artificial dyes to paprika in Kraft Mac and Cheese -- seem to have been made directly in response to anti-science fear-mongering. And in both of those cases, there was no real science behind the decision to make the changes. 

And do you really think the maker of boxed macaroni and cheese is concerned about your health? Step back and think about that for a second.

You have to make your own food choices. And if you want to stick with manufacturers that avoid products you're afraid of, no one can stop you. But think twice about why companies are making the claims they're making -- and whether those promises really mean what you hope they do.

If you care about your nutrition, you're going to have to look a little bit closer.

Read More:

The Food Babe says she’s won a victory over Kraft. The Science Babe says otherwise.

Chipotle’s GMO gimmick is hard to swallow

Why science is so hard to believe

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