Help make the world a safer place to have dinner - vote with your fork when you eat out and say no to GMOs. [Photo: Bigstock]

10 ways to avoid GMOs when you eat out

21 May, 2013

You want to eat out, but you also want to ensure you are not eating GM tainted food.

Depending on where you live going out for a genetically modified organism (GMO)-free meal may seem almost impossible, but there are  good reasons to try including some serious health concerns around eating GM food, as well as the planet damaging effects of GM agriculture (you can read more about GM here).

There are some steps we can all take to keep our restaurant plates as free from GMOs as possible including:

Eat organic. If you want to avoid GMOs without having to do too much research, seek out restaurants that use only organic ingredients. The internet has taken a lot of the leg-work out of finding quality organic establishments in your local area – so use this resource to plan your meals out.

Think slow. Fast-food chains rely on cheap processed foods usually derived from soya and corn. In the US, Canada and other counties that do not label GMOs, this often means that those ingredients are GMOs. They also use dubious oils for frying which can often be GMO or GMO-blends. It’s easiest and healthiest to avoid these places all together. All the stuff used in ready meals such as food additives, enzymes, flavorings, and processing agents, including rennet used to make hard cheeses, can be GMO too.

Eat local – and look for establishments that cook from scratch. Unlike local restaurants that typically get their food supplies much closer to home, chain restaurants generally obtain their food from long-distance supply chains and centralised distribution centres and this greatly increases the risk of GMO contaminants. In the EU these ingredients have to be labelled by law, and most establishments try to avoid their use, but ask questions to know what you’re eating.

Try traditional and ethnic. Italian, Greek or Middle Eastern cooking usually is based around olive oil and by its very nature relies on fresh seasonal ingredients. Even so you will need to confirm this with the management.

Choose a vegetarian option. Even if you are not veggie having a few vegetarian meals each week is healthy. If the meal is made from fresh ingredients the chances are you won’t be eating any GMOs. But there are exceptions. The vast majority of the soybeans and corn grown today are genetically modified. This means that common foods like tofu, miso, tempeh, as well as soy sauce corn chips, corn tortillas, tamales, grits, polenta, and corn meal off limits unless they are guaranteed organic. In the US most Hawaiian papayas are genetically modified, as are small amount of zucchini and yellow squash – if you can’t be sure of their provenance avoid these. It’s a different story in the EU however, where no GMO fruits or vegetables are authorised for sale and any product made with GMO soya or corn HAS to be labelled. If in doubt ask.

Meat and animal products like milk and eggs should be organic or grass fed. While farm animals are not genetically engineered (yet), if you are eating conventionally reared meat and meat products the animal was most likely raised on genetically modified feed- this is the case globally!. Animals reared organically, however, can’t be fed GMOs. So if you’re eating at a restaurant serving organic meat, you’re on solid ground. Another option is to seek out meat products that have been fed only on grass.  There are nutritional advantages to organic and grass fed meat too – usually they are lower in saturated fats and higher in healthy EFAs.

The same goes for dairy. Dairy cattle may be fed on GMO feed as well. In addition, if you live in the US you may have to avoid menu items that use dairy altogether, unless the restaurant uses organic products or buys from a dairy that does not use rbGH (a growth hormone). You will need to ask. In the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan however, rbGH is banned. As with meat, there are nutritional advantages to going for organic and/or grass fed dairy.

Something fishy? We take for granted that we can (or even should!) have salmon every day if we want. But the price of this greed is a rise in numbers of farmed, and soon, genetically modified salmon. Farmed salmon may be fed on amongst other undesirable things, GMO corn. The US FDA has said that it believes genetically modified salmon – which contains a foreign gene that makes the fish grow twice as fast as natural salmon – is “safe” to eat and has “no significant impact” on the environment. FDA is pushing for GM Salmon to be approved for sale with no requirement for it to be labelled. You best defence is to eat less and insist on wild-caught salmon. But here’s an idea too – instead of salmon try wherever possible to choose locally or seasonally caught fish and pay attention to sustainability.

Watch those fats and oils. Whether you are sitting down in a restaurant or ordering take-away be aware that most catering oils – i.e. corn, soybean, cottonseed, and canola oils – are probably genetically modified or blends of GMO and non-GMO oils. Ask and don’t be fobbed off with something that just says ‘vegetable oil’ – its likely a GMO blend. In many countries it is the law to declare if the food you are eating has been cooked in GM oil, so check.

Be savvy about sweets. GM sugar beets are common in the US. To avoid these, find out what sugar is being used in deserts and sweet drinks. Insist on cane sugar – organic and fair trade if you can. Avoid fake sugars like Nutrasweet or Equal which are made from aspartame, which is produced from the use of genetically modified microorganisms and is anyway linked numerous health problems. These days honey and bee pollen may also contain GMO sources of pollen, so look for organic honey or honey from countries that do not permit the planting of GMOs.

Once you start questioning what’s in restaurant or take-away food it will be easy to get discouraged by how little attention many restaurants pay to provenance. We want our restaurants and cafeterias and cafes and pubs to join the non-GMO revolution so instead of complaining, engage.

Try having a friendly conversation with whoever is in charge about the benefits of a non-GMO world. If you can, bring along some information for them to read such as the Institute for Responsible Technology’s new Non-GMO Shopping Guide (you can download the full booklet here). Although written for an American audience it has information relevant for the UK too. In the EU try visiting Citizen’s Concerned about GM website for a good overview of the issues.

And finally, because it’s not always easy to remember who the top 10 most unethical companies are when you are just trying to have a meal, or buy a new t-shirt you might want to investigate some of the apps available to help you choose wisely:

  • There is a new app called Buycott allows you to use your android and iPhone smartphones to analyse products and determine if you’re supporting Monsanto’s GMOs, food companies who are damaging your health, or low quality products.
  • If you live in the US and are looking for a free mobile app to help you shop try the Center for Food Safety’s True Food Shoppers Guide to Avoiding GMOs.
  • The Non-GMO Project also produces a free iPhone app which helps you find on-GMO products and brands.
  • For more on GMOs see our Environment section.