Eating out? Here’s how to avoid GMOs on your plate

Unless you’ve cooked it yourself it can be hard to know what you are eating. Here’s some good advice about how to ensure you are not eating GMOs when you are eating out.

December 20, 2015 by Pat Thomas

Photo: Bigstock

You want to eat out, but you also want to ensure you are not eating food that contains GMOs.

Depending on where you live going out for a meal that is free from genetically modified organism (GMOs) may seem almost impossible, but there are good reasons to make the effort including some serious health concerns around eating GM food, as well as the planet damaging effects of GM agriculture.

Even in the EU, where we have yet to embrace GMOs the way the Americas’ have some level of GMO contamination is allowed without the manufacturers having to declare it on the label, and of course our meat, poultry, eggs, milk and some fish re also widely fed on GMO feed.

There are some common sense steps we can all take to keep our restaurant plates as free from GMOs as possible. These include:

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 away from home.

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, flavuorings, 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 small 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. Remember, it’s OK to ask questions about the provenance of your food to know what you’re eating.

Traditional and ethnic food

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 what’s in it 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 eaters beware

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 – and 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 essential fatty acids (EFAs) like omega-3s.

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 as these products are generally higher in healthy fats.

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 and soya. 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. Campaigners disagree and there is currently confusion about what, if any, labelling will be used to alert consumers to the new ‘frankenfish’ when it goes on sale. Your 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 sustainable, 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.

Start a conversation

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.

The Beyond GM family of campaigns has a wide range of news, articles and resources to help inform you and make you feel more confident about engaging in the GMO debate. So why not take along a copy of the downloadable GMO fact sheet (part of the Good Food Makes Everything Better series) – and don’t forget to check out the other titles in the series too. Or you may read our GMOs – Food for thought FAQs. For a more in depth perspective on the problems caused by GMOs read The Letter from America (& don’t forget to send a copy to your MP via the link on the website!)

Use an app

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:

  • Shop GMO Free claims to be the first and only app aimed at UK shoppers to help them avoid hidden GMOs in their shopping cart. For IOS and Android.
  • 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 in the US.
  • The Buycott app allows you to use your android and iPhone smartphones (and Chrome browser) to analyse US products to determine if they contain GMOs, or are from food companies supplying dubious or low quality products.
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