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OpEd: Non-GMO claims the latest in health-washing at the grocery store

Does unregulated food labelling actually help us make better choices at the supermarket, or does it just confuse things even more?
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Karen Green, January 3, 2014 12:06:58 PM

Did you resolve to eat healthier in 2014? And does that resolution involve a more careful perusal of the labels on the food you buy? It certainly sounds like a smart move to make, and surely knowing what’s in our food is important – but can we actually trust the labels on food packaging to help steer us in the right direction?

General Mills has just released a statement that Original Cheerios will no longer include genetically-modified (GMO) ingredients, and will begin to label boxes so that consumers are aware of the change. There is very little to condemn when a large company agrees to phase out ingredients that have been the subject of much debate due to their potential risk to humans and the environment, but it’s still important to look critically at these kinds of business moves.

For one thing, the designation is non-regulated. There is currently no standard or board in place to monitor or synchronize non-GMO claims as there is with other food administrations, such as the National Organic Standards board. This means that not all labeling claims of non-GMO ingredients will be created equally. While Original Cheerios will no longer use GMO cornstarch or sugar in their product, they have stated that due to processing, the cereal may still include trace amounts of GMO product. It will be up to the public to discern the fact that the label stating, “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients,” does not mean the same thing as “GMO-free.”

So while it’s good knowledge to have, if we start seeing products on the shelf that make a claim of non-GMO oats as a selling point, it will be as relevant as a label claiming that brown rice is gluten-free. All (plain) brown rice is gluten-free brown rice. And all oats are non-GMO oats. But of course, if you truly want to be a smarter eater, you’ll have to look further than a label on a package.

While labels like the one soon to be on Original Cheerios boxes, and the push to banish GMO foods from the grocery store shelves in general are great initiatives, perhaps what consumers really need is not the addition of large labels on the front of the packages, but an adjustment to the fine print on the back. Is it more important to know when an ingredient is non-GMO, or when it is GMO?

Because if a standard in labeling is what we are looking for, perhaps the push should be to force food manufacturers to disclose when an ingredient used is genetically modified, and not just cross our fingers that they’ll see the benevolence – and the marketing opportunity – in telling us when it isn’t.

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