Neva Cochran serves as a nutrition communications consultant to food, nutrition and agriculture organizations and is a volunteer expert with GMO Answers, an initiative committed to answering any and all questions about genetically modified food.
When I first began practicing as a registered dietitian many years ago, the main concerns people had about the food they purchased were fat, sugar, salt and calories.
Now the landscape has totally changed with supermarket aisles — backed by media hype — beckoning buyers with claims of gluten-free, no preservatives, no artificial colors, non-GMO, no added growth hormones and antibiotic-free. Gone are the days of enjoying your food for the taste, nutrition and social interaction it provided. Fear of food sells.
As if it’s not enough that non-GMO claims are plastered on everything from water to cat litter to kale, the latest product attempting to lure consumers is non-GMO vodka. So is non-GMO vodka better or healthier for you than vodka that doesn't carry that label? Let’s take a closer look at exactly what is and isn’t true when it comes to GMO food — and vodka in particular.
First, GMOs are not “in your food.” Agricultural biotechnology, commonly called GMO, is a method of growing crops like organic or conventional farming. A single genetic trait from another plant is inserted in the DNA of the crop seed so it can resist a certain insect or weed killer, tolerate drought so it can grow with less water, or increase the amount of a vitamin or other nutrient in a food. Because farmers make up less than 2% of the labor force, compared to 40% 100 years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they need to produce more food using less land and water, and chemicals for an ever-growing population. As the population in the U.S. has increased, farmland has been converted into land for homes and businesses. There is a finite amount of water in the world and, with more people and businesses all requiring water, there is less left available for agriculture.
Second, there are only 10 GMO crops currently approved in the U.S.: field and sweet corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, squash, potatoes and apples. Vodka is produced from fermented grains, most often sorghum, corn, rice and wheat. Of these, only corn is produced by GMO farming. So “non-GMO” on vodka made from the other grains is meaningless.
Furthermore, DNA is located in all cells, which are made up of protein. As there is no protein in alcohol, vodka does not contain any DNA. It is 100% alcohol. Therefore, it would be impossible to tell the difference between vodka made with GMO corn vs. non-GMO corn, even if you looked at it under a microscope. They are identical.
Third, vodka or any alcoholic beverage is not a health drink. Excessive alcohol use leads to approximately 88,000 deaths a year. In addition, alcohol is a known cancer risk. There is clear evidence that alcohol is linked to cancers of the head and neck, esophagus, liver, breast and colon, and evidence is accumulating that it is associated with melanoma and prostate and pancreatic cancers. That’s why the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association advise no more than one alcoholic drink a day for women, and no more than two for men. And a recent study found that among current drinkers, the lowest risk of death from all causes was for those who drink no more than 3 1/2 ounces of alcohol per week.
We need to get back to basics in this country. People need to quit worrying so much about what’s not in their food, and focus on what is in it. That means eating a balanced diet with more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, moderate amounts of lean meat and low-fat dairy and healthy fats. And food companies need to promote their products based on taste, nutrition and value for the dollar rather than fear.
Finally, some responsible journalists need to do some old-fashioned investigative reporting to figure out why agricultural technology that a 600-page National Academy of Sciences 2016 report concluded was safe, and more than 90 government agencies around the world have approved for use has become so vilified in an era when we embrace technology in most every other aspect of our lives.