GMO Labeling: What You Need to Know

How can GMO labeling tell you if a product has GMO ingredients?

In This Article

Many consumers want to know if food products contain ingredients from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMO labeling can help consumers make decisions about which products to purchase, or can simply tell consumers what types of ingredients are in the food they buy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires that food manufacturers begin labeling for GMOs beginning in January 2022. Consumers will begin to see labels before 2022 disclosing whether food products contain foods with ingredients from genetically modified organisms.

What the Labels Will Say

The rules adopted by the USDA allow for some flexibility on the part of manufacturers in GMO labeling. Consumers will need to educate themselves on what terms mean "GMO" and what types of ingredients may be sourced from genetically modified organisms.

The labels approved by the USDA for use on GMO-containing foods will not actually say "GMO," the term most people identify with genetically altered plants and animals. Instead, the USDA rules state that manufacturers should use the term "bioengineered" on product packaging.

The term "bioengineered" can appear in the list of ingredients on the product's label. For example, corn chips that contain GMO corn might include the words "contains a bioengineered food ingredient" on the label, somewhere close to the ingredients list.

Graphic and QR Codes

However, manufacturers are not required to use this "text disclosure." Products also can include a USDA-designed symbol: A circle with the word "bioengineered" on the top and the bottom and a sunlit farm field in the center. This graphic can be in color (it's designed in shades of green, blue, yellow, and white) or in black and white.

usda gmo label
U.S. Department of Agriculture

In addition, manufacturers can avoid using any term at all on the GMO product's labeling by placing a scannable QR code on the package with the phrase "Scan here for more information." Scanning the QR code would bring the consumer to a website with disclosures of GMO ingredients.

Manufacturers also must include a phone number to call for more information and can include a number to text for additional details on bioengineered ingredients. Smaller manufacturers can direct consumers to call or visit a website for more information.

Foods don't need to be labeled if the genetically modified ingredients they contain are so highly processed that the genetic modification isn't detectable. This will apply most often in the case of highly refined oils and sugar.

Common Ingredients in GMOs

The agriculture department lists 12 genetically modified plants and one genetically modified animal that would require a "bioengineered" disclosure or symbol on the label if sold by themselves or as part of a food product in the United States. The bioengineered plants include:

  • Alfalfa. Genetically modified alfalfa is produced in the U.S. and Canada, and less than 15 percent of all alfalfa grown in the U.S. is bioengineered, according to the USDA.
  • Apples. Only Arctic non-browning varieties, which are grown in the U.S. and Canada, are genetically modified. Most apples sold in the U.S. are not genetically modified.
  • Canola. GMO canola is produced in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, and the USDA states that canola from these three countries should be presumed to be genetically modified.
  • Corn. Genetically modified corn comes in nearly 50 different varieties, and is grown in 15 countries. About one-third of all global corn production is bioengineered corn, according to the USDA.
  • Cotton. The vast majority of global cotton production is genetically modified cotton, which is genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides and insects.
  • Eggplant. There's only one type of genetically modified eggplant grown commercially, and only farmers in Bangladesh grow it. The U.S. does not allow imports of fresh eggplant from Bangladesh.
  • Papaya. GMO papaya, which is resistant to the ringspot virus, is produced in the U.S. and China, and the USDA states that all fresh papaya sold in the U.S. should be presumed to be GMO papaya.
  • Pineapple. Only pineapple that's pink is GMO; it's engineered to boost levels of the nutrient lycopene, which is what makes grapefruit pink and tomatoes red. These bioengineered pineapples are grown only in Costa Rica. If the pineapple you're buying is pink, you can presume it's GMO, and if it's yellow, it's not.
  • Potatoes. Multiple different varieties of GMO potatoes have been developed, mostly to increase resistance to insects and herbicides. However, relatively few farmers grow these potatoes.
  • Soybeans. Similar to corn, most soybeans produced commercially worldwide are GMO varieties, which have been developed for insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. In addition, several varieties of GMO soybeans have been developed to improve the health of soybean oil.
  • Summer Squash. Bioengineered insect-resistant versions of green zucchini, yellow straight-neck and yellow crook-neck summer squash are approved in the U.S., although most squash you'll find in the supermarket is not grown from these varieties.
  • Sugarbeets. GMO sugarbeets are approved for production in the U.S. and Canada, and the USDA states that all sugarbeets grown in those two countries should be presumed to be bioengineered.

At this time, there's only one GMO animal produced commercially: AquAdvantage salmon, a genetically engineered variety of Atlantic salmon that includes a gene from Chinook salmon designed to make the fish grow faster. AquAdvantage salmon isn't currently sold in the United States.

Labeling in Europe and Canada

Different countries have different rules than the United States for disclosure of GMO ingredients on food labels.

In Canada, GMO labeling is voluntary for manufacturers that produce foods that include bioengineered ingredients. Australia, New Zealand, and countries in the European Union, meanwhile, require mandatory labeling of GMO-containing foods and have a strict cutoff: only 0.9 percent of a food needs to be bioengineered before a label is required.

Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, Singapore, and Malaysia are among countries that also have strict GMO labeling standards.

A Word From Verywell

Scientists develop genetically modified plants and animals so that they can include traits in those organisms that aren't found in nature. The majority of GMO plants grown commercially are resistant to herbicides; this allows farmers to use those herbicides on fields without killing the GMO crops.

Although bioengineering may sound a bit scary, GMO foods are not bad for your health. In fact, farmers have been cross-breeding plants and animals to increase favorable traits for centuries. All the bioengineered organisms approved for sale in the U.S. have undergone extensive study and are safe.

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