My all time favorite fruit is the pluot, a hybrid between a plum and an apricot. Whenever I post a green smoothie recipe using pluots, I inevitably get responses from concerned readers over GMOs. (The same thing happens when I use seedless watermelon or grapes in the green smoothies that I post).
I would like to clear up some of the confusion surrounding hybridized fruits and GMOs.
Hybrid vs. GMO
First of all, let’s be clear about the difference between a hybrid fruit and a GMO fruit.
Hybrid & Seedless Fruit
Hybrid fruits are simply the product of cross breeding two similarly related species, a process that dates back to the early days of agriculture. Hybridization also occurs naturally in both animals and plants without human intervention.
In the case of hybrid fruits, farmers simply breed two parent fruit trees through cross-pollination to create a hybrid fruit tree that produces fruits that have the most desired characteristics of its parents.
Examples of common hybrid fruits include the pluot (plum and apricot), tangelo (tangerine and pommelo) and grapefruit (pommelo and orange). In fact, the vast majority of produce that you consume exists due to hybridization and breeding.
Most modern fruits and vegetables – including kale, carrots, broccoli, apples, bananas – you name it – are essentially hybrids that are nothing like their ancient, wild counterparts.
Are There Any Risks To Consuming Hybrid Fruit?
There are no known risks associated with consuming edible hybrid fruits commercially available for sale. Many of these fruits have existed for decades, or even much longer.
Remember that almost all modern fruits and vegetables that we eat today are the products of hybridization. It would be impossible to shop for fresh produce if you avoided all hybridized foods.
Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs)
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), in contrast, are the result of combining DNA molecules from different sources in order to alter the genes of an organism through bio-engineering.
Usually, DNA for a genetically modified organism does not come from closely related species. Bio-engineering is a strictly human-driven process and can not occur naturally, or without human intervention.
Examples of genetically modified fruits include the Hawaiian papaya, which has been genetically modified to be resistant to the Papaya Ringspot Virus that has decimated papaya crops. (The large Mexican papayas are not GMO.)
The non-browning Arctic apple that has just recently hit store shelves in the United States is the first GMO apple to be sold.
Are There Any Risks To Consuming GMOs?
There is much more to the controversy of GMO foods than I can adequately cover in this article. On one hand, opponents of GMOs express concern about the health and environmental implications of bio-technology. For example, cross pollination could alter or harm ecosystems as genetically modified crops spread and contaminate adjacent non-GMO crop fields, or negatively impact native plants and wildlife.
Bio-engineering plants or animals that are used for food have the potential to produce toxic byproducts. (To be fair, so does traditional methods of hybridization.) For example, a food crop might be bio-engineered to be resistant to herbicides, thus allowing the farmer to spray liberal amounts of herbicides to control weeds without impacting the food crop. This could increase the amount of herbicide or pesticide that finds its way into the food.
Additionally, tinkering with the genetic material in an organism could potentially activate certain genes that produce toxins, or allergens. A food crop that is bio-engineered to resist pests might do so by producing a compound that may be harmful to humans.
Companies that produce GMO food crops assert that they are safe for human consumption and rigorous testing is done before a GMO food crop is approved for human consumption. There is nothing inherently harmful about genetic modification. Genes change through the process of evolution, breeding, and mutation, whether directed by humans or not.
What About Seedless Fruits? Are Those GMO?
Seedless watermelons, grapes, bananas and oranges are not GMOs. Rather, seedless fruits are created from plants that are either not fertilized by pollination, or that have been pollinated but do not develop mature seeds.
Fruit cultivars may create seedless fruit by cross breeding normal fruit trees with fruit trees that contain extra chromosomes, which result in infertile offspring producing seedless fruits.
Are Hybrid And Seedless Fruits Less Nutritious?
Hybrid fruits and vegetables are generally bred for flavor, color and convenience. However, they are just as nutritious as traditional fruits.
For example, a pluot can have a slightly higher sugar, vitamin C and fiber content than a standard plum, but a plum might have more beta-carotene. The differences between the two fruits, nutritionally, are negligible and no reason to choose one over the other.
As for seedless fruit, the difference in nutrition between a seedless navel orange and a seeded orange is negligible. Since most fruit seeds are not consumed, there is no reason to choose seeded fruits over seedless fruits in most situations.
However, seeded grapes may have a slight nutritional advantage over seedless grapes due to the additional protein, minerals and fats (including omega-3s) that are available in the edible seeds.
Why I Avoid GMOs, But Not Hybrid/Seedless Produce
While I regularly use hybrid and seedless fruits and vegetables (it’s unavoidable), I generally avoid GMO products. I am not so concerned about the potential they have to cause harm since the evidence is limited and controversial.
My gripe with GMOs is more about the potential ecological impacts of GMO crop production. For example, herbicide-resistant corn may increase use of this ecologically-devastating chemical, and residues may find their way into the food supply causing health issues.
On a philosophical level, I am concerned about large companies “owning” and patenting living organisms. On a basic level, I prefer to let a traditional farmer grow my food using traditional methods rather than a bio-medical or chemical company engineer it.
My beef with GMOs isn’t as much a concern about “Frankenfood”, but of a profit-driven direction of food production that may not have the best interests of consumers (or the environment) in mind.
How To Avoid GMOs (And Which Fruits & Vegetables Are GMO)
GMOs are pretty much everywhere. The vast majority of soy and corn in the United States is GM. Processed, packaged foods are very likely to contain GMO products.
Choose Organic! As of right now, organic standards do not allow for GM products. This may change in the future (I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised), but for right now, organic foods do not contain GMOs.
When it comes to produce, it’s much easier to avoid GMOs. With a couple exceptions, most fruits and vegetables are not genetically modified using modern bio-technology.
GM Fruits: The most common, commercially-produced GM fruit is the Hawaiian papaya, which has been engineered to be resistant to the papaya ringspot virus. Anywhere from 50-80% of Hawaiian papayas are genetically modified. The large Caribbean or Mexican red papayas are not genetically modified.
The Arctic Apple, a non-browning, GMO apple has just recently hit store shelves in the United States (January 2017).
GM Vegetables: As for vegetables, only a tiny fraction of zucchini and yellow squash might be genetically modified in the United States. A variety of GM sweet pepper is grown in China.
Soy Milk & Soy Protein: About 93% of soy grown in the United States is GM. If you use soy milk in your green smoothies, look for products that are organic or labeled GMO-free. Unless they are clearly labeled, it is very likely that soy milk and soy yogurt are GM. This goes for soy protein powders as well.
Dairy: I always recommend that you NEVER add dairy to green smoothies, but if you do, look for brands that do not contain bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).
Keep in mind that dairy cows (and any food animal) that eats soy, corn or alfalfa are most certainly eating GM foods, and therefore you are being exposed to GM foods when you consume the milk or meat from these animals.
GMO-Free Shopping Guide
The Center For Food Safety has produced a handy “True Food Shopper’s Guide” to avoiding GMO foods. You can download the PDF here, or install the app on your smartphone.