organic, non-GMO, local, hybrid...what does it all mean?
Most dietitians will agree that bumping up your fruit and veggie intake is one of the best things you can do to support your fertility and pregnancy. Produce provides nutrients that can never be provided in pill-form (I’m looking at you, Juice Plus. IMO, taking Juice Plus pills are NOT THE SAME as eating fruits and veggies).
We want you to eat fruits and veggies #eattherainbow. With so many labels and claims floating around the internet, I have sadly seen some women fear eating anything that isn’t non-GMO, organic, local, and the list goes on…. I find that with more choices comes more fear and misunderstanding. The misunderstandings lead to avoidance of some foods, and as a result, less produce may be eaten. Most Americans do not eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, despite evidence that adequate intake of these foods reduces the risk of developing certain conditions like certain cancers and cardiovascular diseas.
Many dietitians want you to understand the labels that you see on the produce packages AND, most importantly, want you to eat your fruits and veggies! We don’t want a misunderstanding to get in the way of you loading up on natural antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals that help support your body when ttc and pregnant.
So, let’s start digging into some terms that you see when wandering the produce aisle:
There are some very cool options on the market that are created as a result of cross-breeding certain plants. Cotton candy grapes are a favorite, as are pluots and the new cherry-plums. Hybrids are NOT made as a result of GMO technology. Rather, they are created by controlled pollination in order to breed new fruiting plants (similar concept to dog breeders who breed dogs like a labradoodle or a puggle). Think of your cotton candy grapes as a mixed-breed grape. It was not made in a lab.
It may take years of selective breeding to produce a desired fruit. The plum-apricot hybrid known as the “pluot” took scientists around 20 years to perfect before he introduced it to the market. Hybrids can be bred to obtain a new flavor or to maximize resistance of certain plants to weather.
Other examples of hybrids are boysenberries (blackberry and raspberry) and a Meyer lemon ( lemon and a Mandarin orange).
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. It is exactly as the name implies. Genes from one species are collected to form new genes. In other words, the DNA is modified in an organism to express a certain characteristic.
One example is the genetically modified soybean; the GMO soybean that is resistant to herbicide has had it’s DNA modified to include an herbicide-resistant gene taken from bacteria. The genetic code has been changed. Unlike hybrids/cross-breeding, GMOs have had a gene inserted into individual cells. The cell will then be grown in a lab until it becomes the organism the scientist wants (like a plant). All of the cells in the newly grown plant are now considered to be genetically modified.
Genetic modification allows scientists to create organisms that are resistant to herbicide and/or insecticide. GMOs also offer other benefits like resistance to browning in apples and to virus in papayas.
Not every crop has a GMO variety. Below is a list of crops that have been genetically modified at some point in the world:
Notice that many fruits and veggies are not included on this list. SO, if you are avoiding GMOs and don’t see an indication that the grapes you are purchasing are “non-GMO”, don’t assume that they ARE genetically modified. There are noGMO grape crops currently. Label or not, your grapes are non-GMO.
Similarly, if you see a label that claims a certain food (like cauliflower, for example) is “non-GMO verified”, that does not mean that the alternatives are genetically modified. Example: If you are choosing a package of plain frozen cauliflower and one package has a “non-GMO” label on it, you can rest assured that even though the other brands do not contain a similar label they are non-GMO cauliflower as well…since GMO cauliflower crops do not exist currently.
I have seen NON-GMO water being advertised on a bottle. This can be misleading and imply that there are other water options that are genetically modified. There is no such thing as a GMO water as far as I know.
Data does not exist that evaluates the effects of GMO foods and fertility. One consideration is the pesticide residue on certain GMO crops. My colleague Melissa Groves explained this concept so eloquently; “GMO crops that can withstand more herbicide/pesticide use are then covered with more of these toxins... leading to more residues of glyphosate, etc on the food we end up eating”.
Buying local means different things to different people. In general, buying local means that you are purchasing food that is grown regionally and not from across the country or even across the world. Some advantages of buying local is supporting the community, getting food that required less transit-time, and enforcing strong community ties.
Local food does not imply that the food is organic, more nutritious, or better for you health-wise. Some choices are better, others aren’t.
One downside to committing to buying local is that it limits the variety of foods that people may eat. Also, while food grown in small, local farms might be organic or GMO-free depending on government regulations, there is no true guarantee that crops are raised without pesticides.
Think back to when Chipotle decided to support local and moved away from purchasing their produce from larger-scale suppliers. Unfortunately, that shift resulted in outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella in their restaurants. Smaller farms MAY be less regulated when compared with larger operations, and therefore may harbor unsafe food handling practices.
Choosing to purchase local foods is a positive action, however it does not guarantee superior health.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the regulation of the term “organic” on food labels. There are certain terms that are required for a food to be considered organic, including:
- Produced without excluded methods, (e.g., genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge).
- Produced using allowed substances. View the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List).
- Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.
- Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In instances when a grower has to use a synthetic substance to achieve a specific purpose, the substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environme
- none of it is grown or handled using genetically modified organisms.
Organic produce does not necessarily mean that the food contains more nutrients compared with conventionally—grown alternatives. Rather, it means that it was grown in a very specific way with certain conditions.
Research suggests that women who are trying to conceive or pregnant should choose organic food to support her fertility and development of her baby. One recent study specifically explored the benefits of choosing organic produce over conventional and how it relates to IVF success.
HOWEVER, there is risk in sharing this data. People may misunderstand the risks associated with eating conventionally-grown food and avoid produce altogether if a person does not have access to organically grown food.
A diet rich in fruits and veggies is one of the absolute best things you can do to support your fertility and pregnancy. Ideally, eating at least two fruits and three veggies a day is a practice that is prioritized during the reproductive years. We want you to know that all produce is going to be a positive addition to your diet and should not be feared or avoided.
- I prefer my clients choose organic produce IF POSSIBLE. If cost or access is an obstacle, I would prefer he or she eat conventional instead of no produce at all.
- Choose local as long as it doesn’t hinder your produce intake. Don’t assume that local means organic if that is important to you
- Hybrid produce is not genetically modified. If you are avoiding GMOs, there is no need to avoid hybrid produce (gimme all the cotton candy grapes!).
Moral of the story: eat your produce, and do not cut it out just because you are not getting an organic/non-GMO variety. Any vegetable is better than no veggie at all.