The Effect of Labeling Genetically Modified Foods

An Arivale Hot Topic

Jennifer Lovejoy, Arivale Chief Science Officer, PhD
Jennifer Lovejoy
Arivale Chief Science Officer, PhD

Genetically modified foods ­are the subject of much controversy. Although most scientific research indicates GMOs are safe, many consumers remain concerned about impacts on their personal health and the health of the planet.

A more specific controversy centers around the labeling of GMOs. Some worry labeling such foods may falsely give the impression the food is unsafe or harmful to the environment. Others worry that, conversely, the label may lower the perceived risk of GMOs by increasing consumers’ trust and sense of control.

study published last month in Science Advances and covered by Newsweek seems to support the latter.

The Study

Studies on this topic have been mixed and mostly involve “hypothetical labeling scenarios” (essentially creating sample labels and testing how consumers respond to them). However, this new study is unique in that it uses real-world consumer data.

The data comes from Vermont, which is the only state to have implemented GMO labeling prior to federal legislation in 2016. As a result, Vermont consumers were exposed to two years of GMO labeling – from 2014 to 2016 ­– when the rest of the United States was not. The study compared nearly 8,000 Vermont residents’ attitudes toward GMOs to attitudes from the rest of the United States both before and after the Vermont food labeling law went into effect.

The results showed mandatory labels led to a 19 percent decrease in opposition to GMOs among Vermont consumers. Opinions across the United States didn’t change during the same time period. The results remained significant in multiple statistical models controlling for factors like demographics and people living in states in close proximity to Vermont.

What made this finding even more striking is the fact that, prior to the mandatory labeling, Vermont consumers were actually more negative – in general – toward GMOs than other US residents.

Arivale’s Take

The federal law requiring mandatory labeling of GMOs went into effect in 2016 and is in the process of being implemented. (GMOs will be known as bioengineered foods, or BE foods, on federal labels.) This makes studies like this one particularly important as the new labels start being rolled out.

The strength of this study was that it was not based on hypothetical marketing surveys but on real-world data from a large number of consumers. The Newsweek article notes that a contradictory study from the International Food Information Council was released the same week as the Vermont study. However, the IFIC study was primarily focused on hypothetical labels so the two cannot be directly compared.

Weaknesses of the study are minor and include the fact that the survey questions used in Vermont versus the rest of the United States were not completely identical and that Vermont consumers were more strongly opposed to GMOs than the average US consumer at baseline. This latter issue, however, would ­– if anything – lead to a bias toward a lesser change in response to labeling, not a greater change.

However, we take issue with the headline – “Are GMO Foods Safe? Labeling ‘Modified’ Products Makes Them Less Scary to Consumers, Study Says” – of the Newsweek story. First, the study had nothing to do with assessing whether or not genetically engineered foods are safe or not. Secondly, the survey question used in the study did not ask whether consumers found these foods to be “scary” or not. The question was, “Do you strongly support, somewhat support, have no opinion, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose the use of GMOs in the food supply?” “Not supporting” is not the same as “scary.”

As far as science is concerned, there is no solid evidence to suggest a need to specifically avoid GMOs. On the contrary, some evidence suggests some GMOs may be safer than their non-GMO equivalents. For example, GMO corn can have lower mycotoxin levels.

If you do choose to avoid GMOs, starting with processed and sweetened foods is a good place to start as avoiding those foods already has many documented health benefits. GMO corn and GMO sugar beets are commonly used in processed snack foods, baked goods, and more. Contrary to popular belief, GMO meats – as well as GMO wheat and tomatoes – are not sold in the US.

[Arivale Hot Topics address health stories currently in the news. The Arivale Clinical Team’s commentary on these news articles is not a review of the scientific evidence, nor an endorsement of a specific study, and is not meant as official medical opinion.]