Greatist Op-Eds analyze what’s making headlines in fitness, health, and happiness. The thoughts expressed here are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect Greatist’s outlook.
Once upon a time, you could eat ice cream. You could eat it without knowing how many calories were in it, the name of the cow that produced the dairy, whether the cone would trigger a gluten sensitivity, or whether it contained DNA from some unpronounceable bacteria. And, even without any of this information, you could enjoy it.
But times have changed. Last week, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company made headlines when it announced it would stop using genetically modified ingredients by 2014. (They didn’t specify which genetically modified ingredients they’re currently using.) The statement came just days before the Connecticut state legislature passed a bill requiring all genetically modified food to be labeled as such (and a similar measure failed to pass in New York).
The controversy around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is only the latest example of consumers’ growing interest in knowing what they’re putting in their bodies. People want to find out not just whether that granola bar tastes good, but how much protein it packs and where it was shipped from. But this interest doesn’t always stem from a desire to eat safe, healthy food. Instead, it seems as though some people just want to know for the sake of knowing. We’re approaching an era where consumers aren’t satisfied unless they feel they know everything food companies know — even if they aren’t sure what to do with those details. Why? Information is empowering.
What’s the Deal?
When it comes to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the science is a little murky. We know that GMOs refer to plants whose gene composition has been altered with the addition of foreign DNA, for the purpose of making food taste better, adding nutritional value, making crops resistant to disease, or making food easier to ship. In the U.S., a whopping 80 percent of processed foods feature ingredients made from genetically modified crops, from cornstarch to canola oil. We don’t know for sure, however, whether GMOs pose any human health risk. Some studies (in humans and animals) have linked consumption of GMOs to problems such as muscle and tissue damage and birth defects; but other research suggests GMOs are perfectly safe Roundup causes oxidative stress in liver and inhibits acetylcholinesterase in muscle and brain of the fish Prochilodus lineatus. Modesto, K.A., Martinez, C.B. Departamento de Ciencias Fisiologicas, Universidade Estadual de Londrina, Londrina, Parana, Brazil. Chemosphere 2010 Jan;78(3):294-9. Birth defects, season of conception, and sex of children born to pesticide applicators living in the Red River Valley of Minnesota, USA. Garry, V.F., Harkins, M.E., Erickson, L.L., et al. Environmental Medicine and Pathology Laboratory, 1st Floor Stone Laboratory 1, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA. Environmental Health Perspecrives 2002 Jun;110 Suppl3:441-9. High-throughput sequence-based analysis of the intenstinal microbiota of weanling pigs fed genetically modified MON810 maize expressing Bacillus thuringiensis Cry1Ab (Bt maize) for 31 days. Buzoianu, S.G., Walsh, M.C., Rea, M.C., et al. Teagasc, Pig Development Department, Animal and Grassland Research and Innovation Centre, Moorepark, Fermoy, Co. Cork, Ireland. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 2012 Jun;78(12):4217-24. .
Over the past few years, a number of organizations in the U.S. have advocated special labeling for food products containing genetically modified ingredients. (In Europe, GMO labeling has been required since 1997.) These groups, from “Just Label It” to the “Right to Know” campaign, say consumers are entitled to know where their food comes from. Statistics suggest these efforts have been pretty influential: In 2010, about 90 percent of American consumers supported GMO labeling. And in the interest of not losing customers freaked out by the “G” word, big supermarket chains such as Whole Foods have made efforts to eliminate GMO products from their shelves.
But here’s the kicker: The same survey that found the majority of people advocate GMO labeling found many people don’t really know what impact GMOs have on human health or on the environment. Moreover, many people would still be willing to buy food even if they knew it contained genetically modified ingredients. It’s possible that GMO-labeling campaigns appeal to some people simply because access to information itself is desirable, even if they don’t know exactly how to interpret these facts.
Why It Matters
The same logic may apply to the recent push to require that nutrition information be listed on restaurant menus. According to a 2008 national poll, nearly 80 percent of people believe fast food and other chain restaurants should list nutritional information on menus. But multiple studies have found that people don’t always make healthier choices when they have access to nutrition information in grocery stores and in restaurants Location, location, location: eye-tracking evidence that consumers preferentially view prominently positioned nutrition information. Graham, D.J., Jeffery, R.W. Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Minneapolis MN, USA. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2011 Nov;111(11):1704-11. The Smart Choices front-of-package nutrition label. Influence on perceptions and intake of cereal. Roberto, C.A., Shivaram, M., Martinez, O., et al. Department of Psychology, The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA. Appetite 2012 Apr;58(2):651-7. . So if people aren’t necessarily interested in using nutrition info to figure out which burger is lowest in calories or highest in fiber, what are they interested in?
In writing about GMO labeling, author and food activist Michael Pollan has pointed out that support for labeling isn’t solely about the health and environmental impact of the food we eat. Instead, it’s more about fighting “Big Food” (i.e. the multinational food and beverage industry with a lot of market power) and their ability to withhold information from consumers. It seems as though this desire for openness applies to our support for nutrition labeling in general. We want the opportunity to make healthier choices, even if we’re not necessarily going to take advantage of that power.
“Transparency” is the new hot buzzword among foodies and health experts, and it’s spurring people into action across the globe. In today’s New York Times, Eric Asimov urges readers to push wineries to be more open about the ingredients they use. (On a related note, last week the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau moved to allow alcoholic beverage companies to list nutritional information on their products.) On the more extreme side of the issue, international protests erupted last week when genetically modified wheat was discovered in Oregon.
Ben & Jerry’s website currently features an image of an innocent-looking cow holding a sign that reads: “Everyone has a right to know what’s in their food.” I can’t help but imagine a group of customers seeing this note and promptly storming the dairy farms, demanding to see with their own eyes how the cows’ milk is magically transformed into a pint of creamy sweetness.
In other words, where does the search for information end? What will it take for consumers to feel empowered and in charge of their own health and wellness? I’m curious to see what the next few years will bring in terms of food companies’ willingness to disclose details about their food production processes. I’m interested, too, to know what ice cream tastes like sans GMOs. Honestly, I couldn’t taste them before.
Do you support GMO labeling? How about nutrition labeling, in general? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.