GMO Labeling: Making History

What is GMO?Photo courtesy of

Genetically Modified Organisms are anything that is grown using genetic engineering technology.   Genetic engineering means that these products have been modified by scientists to have greater incidence of a specific trait or outcome.  Genetic engineering is more accurate and faster than traditional breeding, but many questions are raised regarding health benefits (or lack thereof), unintended consequences, ecological impact, and intellectual property law.  For example, there are strains of tomatoes that are genetically modified to not ripen as quickly so that they last longer for consumers.  

The FDA reports that there are currently about 45 genetically modified plant varieties in the marketplace.  For more information and interesting statistics please see the Biotechnology section of the USDA Economic Research Service.

A Good Day for Connecticut

Consumers are becoming more informed regarding what GMOs are, and want to have this information available to them while grocery shopping.  Connecticut just became the first state to pass GMO labeling laws (with a unanimous vote in the Senate and 134-3 vote in the House in favor!).  The language in this bill will allow consumers in CT to have greater transparency and make informed decisions.  It does however require four states (at least one of which bordering, ahem) to pass similar legislation.  

It was written this way so that local small farms and businesses were shielded from being at a competitive disadvantage.  I hope that the passing of this bill helps drive momentum for consumer advocacy across the country.  This is soundly written legislation that I am proud to say was driven by the consumer pushing for their own beliefs of full disclosure.

Take Home Message

We'll have to explore the pros and cons of GMOs in another blog post because there's so much more that can be said!  When I was reading some of my old blogs to see if I have discussed GMOs in the past, I came across a blog I had written four years ago now, "What does organic really mean?".   It's funny, I ended that blog four years ago with the same sentiment I planned to write tonight: 

The ultimate goal in this country surrounding food and nutrition isn't necessarily that all consumers make the same food decisions (organic vs. non-organic, fast food vs. slow food) or even that they always make healthy decisions, but rather that they make informed decisions.

Shopping Organic: When is it Necessary?

When to go organic...

I think that the first line of defense when it comes to eating fruits and vegetables is... you guessed it, actually eating them.  About 12% of American adults are eating the recommended 2 cups of fruits daily and 18% of American adults are eating the recommended 3 cups of vegetables daily (based on NHANES data).  It looks like we have a little bit of work to do.

Now that said, there is a growing market for organic, pesiticide-free, preservative-free, locally-grown, and/or grown with sustainable agriculture practices.  We eat for a lot of different reasons and one of them is certainly ingredient quality.  The Environmental Working Group reveals that we can reduce pesticide intake by approximately 80% by eliminating the twelve fruits/vegetables with the highest rate of pesticides.  

This is especially important for parents to employ with their growing children as the intake of chemicals is higher per kilogram for children.  That difference in concentration in the body can have an impact on health.

Take Home Messages

  • If you can afford it, and if it matters to you, try to select organic alternatives for the 'Dirty Dozen'.  
  • Don't waste your food dollars on buying organic for the 'Clean Fifteen'.  
  • Always wash your fresh produce.
  • Label-reading Tip: PLU codes found on the produce reveal growing practice
    • 4-digit code = conventionally grown
    • 5-digit code starting with 8 = Genetically Modified Organism
    • 5-digit code starting with 9 = Organic

The Dirty Dozen

  • celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, sweet bell peppers, spinach, kale and collard greens, cherries, potatoes, grapes, lettuce

 The Clean Fifteen

  • onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mango, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi fruit, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, sweet onion

Farm to Fork


So this past spring I read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and have currently turned to Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  While both of these books are thoroughly researched and definitely biased, I find it fascinating the extent to which the food industry is detached from our lives and impossibly opaque.  

What is Agriculture?  Photo courtesy of

I know we've all heard of the organic movement (buying organic produce/meats/coffee/tea) and the locavore movement (buying products made within x miles of where you live), both of which take on a keen awareness of food production, but I find that as educated as I am on nutrition, I barely know the first thing about farming and agriculture.  

Alright I could probably tell you that a potato grows in the ground and oranges on trees, but that's about the extent of it.  I don't know that understanding farming or agriculture could help to change our nation's food choices in the grocery store but both authors seem to push the idea that increasing the transparency of the process could lead to healthier choices.  

A Little Challenge

Can you name one food item that you've eaten today where you know it's true origin and entire journey to your plate?  Did you grow it in your backyard?  Do you know a local farmer and get it from their stand at a farmer's market?  Can you even name the country your salad vegetables were grown in?  An array of them I'm sure... 

Now I'm not suggesting you overhaul your eating and purchasing habits... just try to break through some of the opacity of our food supply chain.  Maybe, like me, you'll even get to learn a little about gardening and agriculture in the process.

The Dirty Dozen

Mmmm... Those Pesticides are Quite Delicious

I think it's pretty common knowledge nowadays that all of our fruits and veggies are grown with pesticides and chemicals so that they are protected as they grow (often yielding more crop for the farmer).  On top of that our fruits and veggies may often be genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or genetically altered to grow to very large proportions.  Ever been amazed by the size of certain fruit and veggies?  It must be something in the water... 

Pesticides have become a very salacious component to the organics debate.  What fruits and veggies are most affected by these chemicals and which are not?  Well next time you're shopping for fruits and veggies bring this list with you and you'll know where to spend your organic dollars and where you can stick to conventionally grown foods.

The Dirty Dozen

These are the foods that have been researched to have the most pesticides on them that don't wash off.  Try to buy these as organics and if you buy conventional try to wash them very thoroughly.  

  • PeachImage courtesy of a Sampeson Blog
  • Apple
  • Bell Pepper
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Grapes
  • Carrot
  • Pear

The Clean Fifteen

These food are the lowest in pesticides.  But you should still wash them (where applicable)!

  • Onion
  • Avocado
  • Sweet Corn
  • Pineapple
  • Mango
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet Peas
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Eggplant
  • Papaya
  • Watermelon
  • Broccoli
  • Tomato
  • Sweet Potato

Hope this helps next time you're questioning the value of organics in the grocery store!  There's even an iPhone application put out by the Environment Working Group so you always have the information on the go.  And remember, for farmer's markets and CSAs just ask about growing practices.  

Happy Shopping!


What Does Organic Really Mean?

What is Organic?

There is a constant debate regarding the importance of organic products, what that label actually means, and what benefits are derived from changing our diets to include organic foods.  The organic industry is worth $23 billion and is growing at a rapid pace.  

Every major food company now has an organic division. There's more capital going into organic agriculture than ever before. - Michael Pollan

Organic is a term used for food and produce grown and produced without the use of pesticides, synthetic modifiers, genetic modifiers, or ionizing radiation, and for animals raised without antibiotics and growth hormones.  

USDA OrganicPhoto courtesy of

The USDA Organic label (shown here)  is one way that you can look out for organic products.  For single ingredient products this will be a sticker or seal directly on the product.  For multiple ingredient products there are several tiers of organic.  

100% Organic - Foods made with all organic ingredients.

Organic - Foods contain 95-99% organic ingredients by weight.

Made with Organic Ingredients - Foods contain 70-94% organic ingredients.  These products do not bear the USDA Organic seal but may list up to three organic ingredients on the front of the package.  

Other - Foods contain <70% organic ingredients.  These products may only list organic ingredients on the nutrition information panel of the packaging.  

Things to Keep in Mind

Use of the USDA Organic seal is voluntary even if a producer is certified organic.  While this is not a common practice, reading the nutrition label is the only way to know the extent of organic ingredients in a product.  

On the other hand, becoming certified organic is a costly process and many small farms cannot afford to go through it.  This means that if you buy produce from a farmer's market or a store that supports local agriculture they may not be certified organic but may use organic practices.


The USDA Organic label has come under fire recently.  Lobbyists have been getting their way with lawmakers to broaden the regulations regarding organic products, allowing more chemicals to fall under the "organic" umbrella, in turn allowing companies to use the organic seal on products that may not be truly organic.  In addition, components to the original organics law have been made optional for companies, such as annual pesticides testing.  Should we consider this a means to an end?  Soft regulations exist as organics become mainstream, [hopefully] only to be tightened up as people speak up for their rights?  Or is this the direction organics is going to take?  "Organic" may not really be organic, while consumers believe they are getting healthy and safely grown food.  

It's a very confusing world to navigate, and the face of organics is constantly being debated and manipulated by lawmakers, consumers, farmers, supermarkets, and food conglomerates.  Hopefully as the market continues to grow we'll slowly figure it out.  

The ultimate goal in this country surrounding food and nutrition isn't necessarily that all consumers make the same food decisions (organic vs. non-organic, fast food vs. slow food) or even that they always make healthy decisions, but rather that they make informed decisions.