GMO: Opting Out

By Melissa Diane Smith

As concern about GMOs grows nationally, three Tucson businesses have decided to stop serving some genetically modified ingredients.

(See the first printing of this article by me with photos that appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Edible Baja Arizona magazine.)

In 2012, shortly before The Loft Cinema was scheduled to screen Genetic Roulette, a documentary about the health risks of eating foods that contain laboratory-created genetically modified organisms (GMOs), it began selling organic popcorn popped in non-genetically modified canola oil.

“We wanted to offer the healthiest possible popcorn that we could,” said Zach Breneman, the deputy director of The Loft. “I think it tastes better, too.”

At about the same time in 2012, sisters Sigret and Keanne Thompson, co-owners of the Tasteful Kitchen, viewed the same movie and began sourcing many non-GMO ingredients to use in their kitchen. At greater expense and with more effort, they began to purchase and learn to work with frozen organic corn tortillas instead of fresh, locally made ones, and switched to using olive oil, sesame oil, and coconut oil instead of canola oil when cooking. To avoid other sources of genetically modified (GM) foods such as soy, zucchini, yellow squash, and beet sugar, they decided to use only organic soy miso, organic zucchini, or Mexican gray squash, and non-GMO sweeteners such as dates, pure cane sugar, agave nectar, and coconut sugar.

“We don’t want to eat them, so why should we serve them to our customers? Serving non-GMO foods is the right thing to do,” said Chef Sigret.

Todd and Sherry Martin, co-owners of The Tucson Tamale Company, took a slightly different journey. They learned about GMOs close to 15 years ago from Todd’s father, Bob, a former farmer who had many concerns about their impact on agriculture. When the Martins opened their first Tucson Tamale restaurant in November 2008, they wanted to offer non-GMO tamales but lacked financial and logistic resources, including not being able to find local sources of non-GMO corn.

“When we first opened, we checked with all the local suppliers and nobody had any non-GMO product,” Todd Martin said. “When things began to roll along with our business, we started to search for non-GMO corn masa again, and we knew we were going to have to go outside of Tucson to find it.”

They eventually found it from a California manufacturer in 2010. “The first bag of organic blue corn masa we bought, including the freight and everything, was about five times more expensive. Now, because we are able to buy in quantity and reduce our shipping costs, we’re down to just about 20 percent more expensive.”

They cut out more sources of GMOs last July when they switched the oil they were using from canola oil, a common genetically modified food, to non-genetically modified sunflower oil. They’re now looking for a local producer of non-GMO zucchini and yellow squash and have plans to make their own non-GMO corn tortilla chips.

Whether you’ve realized it or not, these local businesses and restaurants have been making changes in what they offer, responding—just as some national food companies are starting to do—to the underground, yet incredibly fast-growing movement by consumers to avoid GMOs. Genetically modified organisms—usually plants—are created by inserting genes from one kind of living thing—say, bacteria—into the DNA of another—say, a type of corn—to confer new traits, such as herbicide tolerance, in a crop.

There are partial or total bans on GM foods in 26 countries and GM foods are labeled in more than 60 other countries around the world. But they aren’t labeled in the United States. Because of U.S. agricultural policy, GM foods entered the U.S. food supply more than two decades ago without congressional oversight.

Contrary to what most people believe, no studies have been conducted by the FDA to determine how GM foods affect human health. “The Food and Drug Administration makes no conclusion about the safety of GM food, but says it is up to the companies to determine the safety of any GM food,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at the Consumers Union, who has testified at many hearings on the topic.

A growing number of consumers are concerned about several issues presented by GM crops. Most genetically modified crops on the market are sprayed with large amounts of chemical herbicide like Roundup weed killer. Chemical companies have been purchasing more and more of the world’s seeds, genetically modifying them, and patenting them, so a handful of companies control our seed and food supply, and farmers can no longer save and pass down those patented seeds. What’s more, GM seed companies sometimes sue farmers if patented GM crops start growing in farmers’ fields when wind drift carries GMO seeds or pollen into those fields, even if the farmers had no intention of wanting to grow the GM crops.

Many other people are worried about the health effects: Animal research points to possible health risks from eating GM foods, including infertility, immune system problems, gastrointestinal problems, accelerated aging, dysfunction of regulation of cholesterol and insulin, changes in organs, and tumors.

The fact that more American consumers are realizing they are eating untested GM foods that aren’t eaten in many other countries and that have risks associated with them has prompted them to speak up en masse to companies, leading several national food purveyors to source non-GMO ingredients. There also has been a huge surge in sales of verified, voluntarily labeled non-GMO food products—from $0 in 2010 to over $3.5 billion in 2013. It’s estimated that by 2017 non-GMO products will make up around 30 percent of total food and beverage sales, with a value of about $264 billion.

Cindy Bruwer and Anne Kessell are two Pima County residents who are part of the growing non-GMO movement. They are concerned about the health, environmental and agricultural effects of GMOs, and they go out of their way to regularly support businesses and food growers that offer non-GMO food.

“Every time I go out, I’m conscious that I want to avoid genetically modified food,” said Bruwer.

“To think I can go somewhere [like The Loft] and have popcorn that is not genetically engineered is seventh heaven,” said Bruwer. She won’t eat popcorn in other theaters even though popcorn is non-GMO everywhere; the Loft’s policy on using Non-GMO Project Verified oil matters to her. “It’s great to be able to relax and eat something without worrying about it.”

Kessell likes talking to local businesses knowledgeable about the subject. “I want to give my body the best food possible for my health and it’s important to me that some local restaurants and vendors at farmers’ markets are avoiding GMOs,” she said. “I really appreciate the extra efforts they’re making.”

Surprisingly, The Loft, The Tasteful Kitchen, and the Tucson Tamale Company didn’t revamp their ingredients to cater to customers or to increase business. They chose to provide more non-GMO offerings because of what they learned about GMOs.

“There are so many reasons to be non-GMO,” Martin said. Though many more people are seeking out non-GMO food, “Even if nobody cared about it, we were always going to go non-GMO.”

Keanne Thompson of The Tasteful Kitchen said she doesn’t mind if many customers don’t yet understand the importance of eating non-GMO foods. She and her sister feel great about the decision to offer non-GMO, local, and organic food, and “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing,” she said.

The Loft Cinema. 3233 E. Speedway Blvd. 520.795.7777.

The Tasteful Kitchen. 722 N. Stone Ave. 520.250.9600.

Tucson Tamale Company. 2545 E. Broadway Blvd. 520.305.4760; 7159 E. Tanque Verde Road. 520.298.8404.

Holistic nutritionist and health journalist Melissa Diane Smith is a non-GMO speaker and the author of the forthcoming Going Against GMOs: The Fast-Growing Movement to Avoid Unnatural Genetically Modified “Foods” and Take Back Our Food and Health. Visit and

How to Say No to GMOs

Even though foods do not have to be labeled in the United States, you can avoid genetically modified foods right now by learning how to be a savvy non-GMO consumer. In my book, Going Against GMOs, I offer shopping tips, recipes, and the Eat GMO-Free Challenge, a series of tips to follow day by day for 31 days.

The most important strategy is to get the nine currently commercialized GM food crops firmly in your mind. Unless they are labeled with the USDA Organic or Non-GMO Project Verified seals or unless a farmer assures you that they are non-GMO or organic, avoid foods that contain the following GM ingredients:

  • Corn (as in corn oil, cornmeal, cornstarch, corn syrup, hominy, polenta, and other corn-based ingredients)
  • Canola (as in canola oil)
  • Cottonseed (as in cottonseed oil)
  • Sugar Beets (as in “sugar” in an ingredient, which almost certainly is a combination of sugar from both sugar cane and GM sugar beets)
  • Soybeans (as in soybean oil, soy protein, soy lecithin, soy milk, tofu, and other soy-based ingredients)
  • Alfalfa, which is fed to livestock
  • Papaya from Hawaii and China
  • Yellow Squash and Zucchini (look for those labeled organic or grown from non-GMO or heirloom seed)

If you shop mostly at farmers’ markets, the main produce items to be leery of are zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, and fresh corn on the cob. If you see these items at a vendor’s table, you won’t be able to tell the difference between non-GMO and GMO simply by looking at them, so you have to ask the grower. You might ask: Are this zucchini and yellow squash grown from non-GMO, organic, or heirloom seed?

Also be sure to vet vendors that sell animal protein sources, such as beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and eggs. Always find out from farmers and ranchers exactly what the animals they raise are fed. You’ll discover the challenges that some farmers face trying to avoid GMOs and the extra lengths they put forth to provide non-GMO food.

Copyright © 2014 Melissa Diane Smith
Copyright © 2014 Melissa Diane Smith

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