Is ‘GMO-Free’ the Next Big (Meaningless) Marketing Gimmick?

Is ‘GMO-Free’ the Next Big (Meaningless) Marketing Gimmick?

Since the U.S. government shows no signs of mandating labels for foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the only way to know if a food is GMO-free, aside from growing it yourself, is if the brand tells you.

The whole GMO-free claim is becoming a lot more complicated than it should be. To give brands’ GMO-free claims credit, manufacturers are enlisting third-party verification programs like the Non-GMO Project, which has certified thousands of ‘GMO-free’ foods sold in North America.

But as Vice Magazine’s Munchies points out, “You can now buy salt that is labeled ‘GMO-free.’” In case you skipped science class, salt is not alive—which means it has no genes to modify. But concerns over GMOs are at an all-time high, so much so that brands are happy to spend money and endure a certification process just to slap that GMO-free label on their products—even if it’s literally impossible for there to be a risk of GMOs, which is the case for salt.

“[T]he amount of companies asking for ‘GMO-free’ certification for their products is skyrocketing, as producers feel the need to rebrand their products in order to sell to wary consumers,” reports Vice. “Like ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’ certifications before it, GMO labeling has become a huge selling point to consumers who are bombarded with news and research about how evil corporations are pumping harmful chemicals into our food.” Sales of GMO-free labeled foods soared to $1.1 billion last year, and shows no sign of slowing.

And while GMO ingredients are pervasive in processed foods—for example, there are dozens of ingredients made from corn, one of the most common genetically modified foods in the U.S.—there are actually only a few genetically modified crops. Aside from corn, there are GMO soybeans, alfalfa, papaya, summer squash, sugar beets, cotton, and canola in production in the U.S. That’s it.

The USDA recently approved several varieties of GMO potatoes, and a GMO salmon has been in the pipeline for years, but has yet to receive U.S. approval. Livestock animals are fed the majority of GMO corn, soy, and alfalfa grown in the U.S., making most conventional animal products not technically free from GMOs either. But if the food you eat doesn’t contain these ingredients in whatever shape or form—or if your food is 100 percent organic—you’re not eating GMOs. Period.

“If a company wants to flaunt their dedication to the fight against genetically modified food,” Vice reports, they pay up the Non-GMO Project fees to get its stamp of approval—even if that product is pink Himalayan salt.

The Himalania brand, which sells the GMO-free verified salt, may have made the decision to ease the growing customer concerns, or stand out among competitors and gain market share.

But it brings up a question about the Non-GMO Project’s certification process. The Non-GMO Project is currently the only third-party certification for GMO-free foods, and brands are lining up for approval. But is the organization crossing a line when it takes money to certify products that by definition can’t ever be at risk of containing GMOs? After all, isn’t it a little bit like certifying a tomato as gluten-free? How much responsibility should consumers have in knowing, even just a little bit, about the food they eat?

The USDA says it is taking steps to create a GMO-free verified label much like its certified organic label program, which may help brands and consumers better navigate grocery stores for foods free from GMOs. But don’t expect to see salt getting a USDA GMO-free label—it doesn’t qualify for the certified organic seal either because salt doesn’t have genes. It’s not alive. Not yet, anyway.

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Grocery shopping image via Shutterstock

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.