Food labels are becoming increasingly hard to decipher. With terms like “all-natural,” “non-GMO” and “free-range” appearing on labels, it is important that consumers understand exactly what they are buying.
George Mason University’s Office of Sustainability works to provide leadership to students by engaging in activities that promote a healthier environment. One of their focuses is providing a healthy and sustainable food source on campus. They maintain four edible gardens on campus that grow fruits and vegetables, free of Genetically Modified Organisms.
Danielle Wyman, manager of Sustainable Landscapes and Food, oversees sustainable and environmental-friendly efforts on campus. She is enthusiastic about providing students with the knowledge they need to be informed consumers when it comes to food.
“My biggest hope is to encourage more people to get engaged in the decision-making process when it comes to food. When you grow a garden, it demystifies the food growing process. The very best food comes from your own garden,” Wyman said.
According to USA Today, the practice of genetically altering crops was first introduced in the 1990s. The practice increases the yield of crops, allowing for more profit to be made by farmers. The report stated that the most common genetically modified plants worldwide are corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton.
Wyman is very interested in the GMO debate and feels strongly that humans should not consume foods altered by science not knowing what the effects will be on the body.
“Given that GMOs have not been around long, consuming them essentially makes you a lab rat. We really do not know the long-term effects of eating foods that have been artificially put together in a lab,” Wyman said.
Research conducted by Washington State University found that genetically engineered crops use molecular biology to alter the genetic makeup of a crop. The end result is the crop possessing traits that are not sexually compatible with the original product. In other words, the DNA of an entirely different organism exists in the original organism causing it to posses a new favorable trait.
Pew research studies show that 88% of scientists think GMOs are safe to eat and only 37% of U.S. adults agree. These numbers suggest there is still work to do in terms of convincing the American public that GMOs are safe for consumption.
Mason’s Office of Sustainability encourages students to think about the choices they are making and the effect those choices have not only on their bodies and on the environment also.
“The average food item in North America travels about 2,500 miles before it reaches our plates,” Wyman said. “This not only eliminates the element of freshness, but the means of transportation contributes to global climate change through carbon monoxide emissions.”
The USDA has a national standard that food products must meet in order to be labeled with the USDA organic seal. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic foods are produced without toxic chemicals that include synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, synthetic hormones and antibiotics.
As for deciphering labels such as “all-natural” and “free-range,” Wyman says consumers must do their research to know what exactly these terms mean.
“All-natural is not as healthy as it seems. I always like to know for sure how the food I purchase was raised,” Wyman said. “I make it a priority to know where my food really came from. The all-natural claim typically means nothing in terms of health benefits.”
The Green Patriots are a Mason organization engaged in making a positive change for the environment. Junior Christine Harris, president of the Green Patriots, believes that consuming GMOs and food treated with harsh chemicals can be detrimental to one’s health. She feels it is important to know how to read a food label.
“Food labels can be confusing. Some eggs from ‘free-range’ chickens are fed GMO corn and an abundance of hormones. However, organic foods are free of any chemicals from seed to market, making them your healthiest option,” Harris said.
Harris believes that students should make the conscious effort to be informed consumers when it comes to choosing what food to buy.
“Sustainable food is one of my greatest passions,” Harris said. “I know it can be intimidating to be conscious of these negative things in our food system.”
Featured image by Cecil Claire