What you need to know about GMOs

by Kaiser Permanente |
Hands holding ears of corn

When you’re shopping at a grocery store, there are dozens of decisions to make about the food you buy. Natural, organic, no added sugar, GMO or non-GMO. So what does GMO mean?

In short, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants you find in most grocery stores. As Lisa DeFazio, a registered dietitian with Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, explains, they’re called GMOs because their DNA was changed in a laboratory. The cottonseed used in mayonnaise or some of the potatoes or apples in the produce section are examples of GMOs.

But why do we genetically alter food at all? And is it healthy? Here’s everything you need to know about GMOs. 

Why do we use GMOs?

These plants have been around for decades.1 And they’re used for all kinds of reasons. Usually, they help farmers prevent crop loss and control weeds, which lowers costs. And in some cases, they can lessen the environmental impact of mass farming. For example, if a plant is genetically altered to resist disease and drought, it requires less fertilizer, pesticide, and water to grow.

And it’s not just about cost. GMOs can make food safer, too. While some potatoes are altered to bruise and brown less, others are changed to produce less of a cancer-causing substance when fried.2 But every food modification is different.

Are GMOs safe?

When it comes to the food on your dinner table, you may have questions about GMO safety. And you’re not alone. Even though 90% of scientists believe GMOs are safe, only about 30% of consumers feel the same.3

Some people are unsure if GMOs change the amount of nutrients in foods. Or if these plants can cause food allergies or become toxic when eaten. DeFazio believes consumers question why scientists want to change things at all.

Whatever the concern, many major health groups have studied genetically modified foods and agree that they’re safe.4 And the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) strictly regulates farming, so foods — including GMOs — are safe to eat.

How do I know which foods are GMO?

GMOs are most common in crops used for animal food, says DeFazio. But they’re common enough that you probably eat them without even realizing it. While some fresh fruits and vegetables are genetically modified, so are common ingredients in other products you buy, such as sugar and corn syrup.

Here are the most common GMOs you’ll find at the grocery store:

  • Corn — High-fructose corn syrup is an ingredient in many processed foods and sodas, but most GMO corn is fed to livestock.
  • Soybeans — Soybeans are a major ingredient in foods like soy milk, baby formula, ice cream, and frozen dinners.
  • Cotton — Cottonseed makes the vegetable oils used in some brands of margarine, mayonnaise, and salad dressings.
  • Potatoes and apples — Some GMOs keep potatoes and apples from bruising. (Bruised food is safe to eat, but most people throw it out because it doesn’t look good.)
  • Papaya — After a virus nearly wiped out Hawaii’s papaya crops, they became a common source of GMOs.
  • Sugar beets — About 95% of sugar beets grown in the U.S. are GMOs5

The USDA now requires food sellers to label their GMO products to help you identify them.6 The label might say “bioengineered (BE)” or “contains a bioengineered food ingredient.” But if they’re labeled “certified organic,” the USDA says they can’t contain any GMOs.7

You can find a full list of GMOs at the USDA website.

Where to learn more about GMOs

Be a champion for your health and do your research. Read science-based, reliable sources of information, like the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization. And as always, make healthy eating a regular habit.

Science and History of GMOs and Other Food Modification Processes,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, February 17, 2022.

GMO Crops, Animal Food, and Beyond,” USDA, February 17, 2022.

Jane E Brody, “Are G.M.O. Foods Safe?” The New York Times, April 23, 2018.

Charlotte Hu, “Is it OK to Eat GMO Foods? Scientists Say ‘Yes.’” Popular Science, January 3, 2022.

Esther Honig, “Sugar Beet Farmers Caught in GMO Debate, Wait for USDA Labeling Decision,” HPPR, May 18, 2018.

BE Disclosure,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, accessed June 13, 2022.

Miles McEvoy, “Organic 101: Can GMOs Be Used in Organic Products?” USDA, February 21, 2017.