Chipotle Has Gone GMO-Free: How Much Should We Care?

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Lunch at a Chipotle in Phoenix. (Photo: Facebook) 

Chipotle made headlines today when the fast food chain announced it has removed all genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients from its foods. 

With this move, Chipotle is the first major restaurant chain to go GMO-free.

You’ve probably heard about GMOs and the controversy surrounding them. 

Just last week, Dr. Oz defended his anti-GMO stance against critics who called for his removal as professor of surgery at Columbia University. (He accused his critics of being linked to pro-GMO groups.)

But what are they, exactly? GMOs are plants or animals that have undergone a process in which scientists alter the genes of the life forms with DNA from different plants, viruses, or organisms to get a desired trait, such as disease resistance or pesticide tolerance. According to the Food and Drug Administration, GMOs were introduced into our food in the 1990s.

More than 80 percent of the food eaten in North America contains GMOs, according to the Non GMO Project. Corn, canola, soybean, and cotton are the most commonly genetically engineered plants, per the FDA, and they’re often used in other food products — like sweeteners, canola oil, salad dressings, cereals, breads, and snack foods — making it difficult to avoid GMOs.

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GMOs in foods have been a controversial topic for years, and even the FDA refuses to take an official stance. “While FDA regulates foods and ingredients, including foods made from genetically-engineered plants, the agency neither supports genetically-engineered plants based on their perceived benefits nor opposes them based on their perceived risks,” the agency says on its website.

But the head of the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety center has said the agency found no basis that GMOs pose any different safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.

But why is the topic of GMOs in food so disputed?

“There are two sides, and it’s like they’re each speaking their own language,” says bioethicist Sheldon Krimsky, a professor in Tufts University’s department of urban and environmental policy and planning, and author of The GMO Deception. One side says we need GMOs to create stronger crops and to help feed the world; the other says that everything made with a GMO is inherently bad. “Both sides have extremes,” Krimsky tells Yahoo Health.

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So, who is right? According to Krimsky, not enough research has been conducted to give a definitive answer.

That’s the reason Chipotle gave for phasing out all of its GMO ingredients. “There is a lot of debate about genetically modified foods,” said Steve Ells, founder, chairman, and co-CEO of Chipotle, in a statement released to Yahoo Health. “Though many countries have already restricted or banned the use of GMO crops, it’s clear that a lot of research is still needed before we can truly understand all of the implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption. While that debate continues, we decided to move to non-GMO ingredients.”

Research on GMOs has been mixed. One rat study published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology concluded that GMOs are safe and are just as nutritious as non-GMO foods. However, a study published last year in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe found that rats that were fed a diet containing GMOs experienced significant chronic kidney deficiencies, liver congestion, and a much larger risk of early death than those that were fed a non-GMO diet. 

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Unfortunately, there are currently no regulations that say GMO products have to be tested for safety. Krimsky explains why this is troubling: When you take a gene and put it into a plant, you can’t predict how it will behave — and where it ends up will determine what it actually does.

“Clearly people are not keeling over from GMOs, but it took us 50 years to decide that lead was a neurotoxin and ban it,” Krimsky says. “There’s no way to say inherently whether GMOs are bad or good. More research needs to be conducted.”

Concerned about GMOs? You may want to shop organic. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, GMOs are prohibited in organic products.

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