GMOs have caused a lot of controversy over the last several decades. Are they safe to eat, or are they not? The official answer is yes, they are safe to eat, but it’s a complicated subject, so in this installment of Simple Food Terms Explained, we investigate the world of GMOs.

What is a GMO?

GMO is the acronym for a genetically modified organism. It covers any living organism whose recombinant DNA is altered in a way that does not occur naturally. Genetically modified organisms are usually referred to as GM foods, or as scientists and the FDA prefer, GE foods (genetically engineered foods).

In today’s world, the process of genetically modifying organisms is faster and more precise than it used to be. We now have the ability to cross species as well. For instance, if one plant possesses the ability to withstand herbicides, a scientist may seek to isolate the genetic material that gives the plant this quality and insert it into another plant, regardless of whether they are the same species.

The most commonly genetically modified plants in the U.S. are soybeans, corn, and cotton.

Why are GM foods created?

GM foods are used by farmers to maximize profit by developing hardier plants, more nutritious plants, and increasing plant and animal byproducts, like oil and milk.

Most genetic modifications are aimed at creating bug and herbicide resistant plants to decrease the amount of insecticide and toxicity of herbicide used on crops. For instance, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a microbe found naturally in soil that is a toxin to bugs, but safe for humans to eat. It has been genetically incorporated into many plant species to develop plants that are naturally resistant to pests.

Other genetic modifications include creating virus-resistant crops, crops that produce more food, more oil, or contain more nutrients.

Are GM foods safe?

The short answer is yes. The FDA tests genetically engineered food before it enters the market, and the USDA regulates genetically modified crops to protect the health and safety of agriculture. The EPA regulates the use of biopesticides—natural pesticides that are genetically added to plant species.

In 2014, an Italian university conducted a review of almost 2,000 scientific studies done on GM plants and found that the research conducted had found no significant evidence of hazards to human health caused by GM food.

The longer answer is that time will tell. There is no evidence that genetically modified organisms are negatively affecting either the environment or the people who consume them, but all three government agencies and a plethora of independent scientists and agencies are continuously testing GM crops to ensure safe human consumption.

What if I want to avoid GM food?

GM foods are safe to consume, but some people may still wish to avoid eating them. In the U.S., this is quite difficult because GM foods are not required to be labeled.

Additionally, almost all corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, so chances are nearly every product containing corn or soybeans will be a GM food. Genetically modified corn and other crops are often fed to farm animals, from cows to fish, and many animals themselves have been genetically modified.

The best way to ensure that your food is non-GMO is to grow it yourself. Barring that, you can buy directly from farmers who grow non-GM food and raise non-GM animals, or buy only 100% certified organic products.

Some food manufacturers have added non-GMO labels to their products, and Whole Foods has started labeling all of their GM foods. It’s possible this trend will grow, but until then, it will take a lot of investigative work to find out which food products are non-GMO.