How to avoid GMOs

Papaya tree by Karl Haro von Mogel.
Healthy papaya tree by Karl Haro von Mogel.

I received this question from a student: If someone wants to stop eating GMO food, what should they do?
While I may not agree with most reasons for doing so, I understand that some people want to avoid GMOs. So, here is the straight answer of what you need to do to avoid GMOs at the grocery store, along with some information about the GMO options.
First, I did want to point out that all genetically engineered (GE) foods in the United States has been through a risk assessment “consultation” process with the Food and Drug Administration. Now, on to our guide on how to avoid GMOs…

  • In the produce section:
    • Hawaiian papaya is likely to be engineered for virus resistance, but papaya from other countries is probably not GE.
      • Many non-GE papaya are infected with the papya ringspot virus. The GE papaya contains a small amount of papaya ringspot virus DNA, which serves as a sort of vaccine against the virus. This means that non-GE papayas may actually contain more virus DNA than GE papayas – but both are perfectly safe, since the virus only harms plants.
    • Potatoes have been engineered to not brown when cut or bruised and to accumulate less of a potential carcinogen when cooked (acrylamide). These are not widely available, and are labeled “White Russet”.
    • Apples have been engineered to not brown when cut or bruised but are not available on the market yet, but will be labeled “Arctic”.
      • The non-browning trait can also be found in golden raisins, which have a naturally occurring mutation that causes the same result as the GE trait.
    • Some yellow squash and zucchini has GE virus resistance, but it is not widely used (perhaps 12% of squash acres).
    • Some sweet corn has GE insect resistance or herbicide tolerance, but it is not widely used (perhaps 8% of fresh market sweet corn acres).
    • While most soybean is GE for herbicide tolerance, the varieties of soy used for edamame and tofu are not GE.
      • Most of the soy varieties used for many other vegetarian mock-meats are GE, so a person hoping to avoid GMOs would need to buy organic or “non-GMO” for those products.
    • If a person still is concerned, they can buy organic versions of these listed fruits and vegetables, or they can find products that are labeled as “non-GMO”.
  • In the meat/dairy/eggs section:
    • There are no GE animals on the market.
      • Salmon that has a GE trait to grow to full size faster than non-GE salmon has been approved by the FDA but is not on the market. Based on current politics, will likely will not be on the market for a long time, if ever, despite the evidence for its safety.
      • Researchers in Canada developed a GE pig called Enviropig that would have dramatically reduced phosphorus waste from pork production but the project was literally killed and the GE pigs will likely never make it to market, in part due to anti-GMO sentiment.
    • Many animals are fed GE plants but there is no evidence that an animal fed on GE plants is different from an animal fed non-GE plants.
    • If a person still is concerned, they can buy organic meat/dairy/eggs which are from animals not fed GE plants, or they can find products that are labeled as “non-GMO”.
  • In the processed foods section:
    • This is where things get a little more complicated. Most processed foods contain some ingredients derived from a GE crop. For example, corn syrup is likely to be from GE corn and soy lecithin is likely to be from GE soy.
      • However, highly purified ingredients such as oil and sugar are identical whether they are from GE or non-GE crops. There are no intact genes or proteins in these ingredients, and in many cases even sophisticated chemical analysis can not tell the difference between ingredients made from GE or non-GE crops.
    • If a person is very concerned about avoiding all ingredients that might be derived from a GE crop, that person would need to carefully examine the ingredient list and choose non-GMO or organic for any product that may contain ingredients derived from canola, corn, cotton, soy, and sugar beet.
    • There are also many vitamins, enzymes, and other additives that are made with genetically engineered bacteria or yeasts, or from bacteria or yeasts that are fed GE corn or soy.
      • Once purified, these ingredients are indistinguishable from versions from non-GE sources.
      • Mandatory labeling would not shed light on these ingredients as they are exempt in most GMO labeling bills.
      • Enzymes from GE bacteria and yeast are not permitted in foods labeled as certified organic.
  • What is not GMO?
    • To summarize, there are GE versions of alfalfa, canola, corn (field and sweet, but not popcorn), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans (but not tofu or edamame varieties), sugar beet, yellow squash, and zucchini. GE apples will soon be on the market.
    • There no GE versions on the market of other crops, which means all bananas, wheat, strawberries, broccoli, or anything not listed above are all non-GMO.


  1. Nice summary. There’s a tiny bit missing. There is GMO alfalfa with the herbicide tolerance trait. Almost all alfalfa is fed to animals, but there are also some commercially available alfalfa sprouts (or you can sprout your own). Since sprouts are not grown in soil, there’s no good reason to sprout them from herbicide tolerant alfalfa seeds, but no guarantee that they would not be.

  2. Hm, I was under the impression that the alfalfa used for sprouting was not the same variety as the one used for hay but I will check it out and update. Thanks!

  3. Non-gmo is not a legally defined term, organic is.
    Not only is organic legally enforceable, the use of gmos are prohibited, as well as, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, artificial preservatives, colors and flavors.
    So even though a product you’re buying might have the non-gmo seal on it ( it’s still being produced and made with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, artificial preser…etc.
    If it’s organic it doesn’t need the non-gmo label because it is already non-gmo, so if you’re buying products with the non-gmo label, look for products that have been minimally processed and don’t contain a lot of junk ingredients such as the one stated above, (artificial preservatives, colors.. etc.) besides that the non-gmo label is more of a marketing tool than anything else, because they certify primarily processed food, unprocessed foods already sell regardless of their labeling so producers aren’t going to pay extra just to tell you their generic apples are gmo free, when you can just go and buy certified organic

  4. Also no reason to use herbicide on hydroponic alfalfa, regardless whether the trait is there or not.

  5. Organic is also mostly a Marketing term.
    Why does over 40% of Organic foods test positive for banned pesticides, and didn’t they just find Glyphosate in Organic cotton? Has anyone ever tested Organic for GMO presence? I would bet money that over 25% of Organic cotton is GMO.

  6. there’s no good reason to sprout them from herbicide tolerant alfalfa seeds

    Non GMO alfalfa, is resistant to imazethapyr (Pursuit). Don’t spray that on your alfalfa sprouts either.
    No one would buy RR alfalfa for sprouts, it costs 2x more.

  7. How about for the processed foods they buy only processed foods labelled organic?

  8. The article was ‘how to avoid GMOs’ not how to avoid non-usda organic approved fertilizers, pesticides, preservatives colors or flavors.
    I mean, I could point out that to avoid products containing gluten you should look for a label saying the product is gluten free, but that would be rather an odd thing to bring up when the topic is very specifically telling people how to go about avoiding GMO if they so wish.

  9. I am not sure about organic cotton containing GMO traits, but any commercial conventional (non-GMO) cotton seed coming from Monsanto and other agri-suppliers, is tested during manufacturing to ensure that there aren’t biotech traits present.

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