Navigating the grocery store aisle is challenging for many consumers—especially those who want to buy the most nutritious food and stay within their budget. The University of Connecticut (UConn) Extension New Technologies in Agricultural Extension (NTAE) team developed an interactive learning activity (or game), Unpeeled: The Case Studies of Maya McCluen. Our team sought to clarify food marketing labels and empower consumers to make science-based decisions while shopping. The game and other resources from our team are available at s.uconn.edu/unpeeled.
Food manufacturers and distributors cover their boxed, canned, and bottled foods with labels like “whole grain” and “low-calorie” to suggest that their food has certain health benefits. Among the most misunderstood food marketing labels are “non-GMO,” “natural,” and “organic:”
- In a representative survey conducted by GMO Answers (2018), 69% of consumers could not define GMO (genetically modified organism). Wunderlich et al. (2019) surveyed members of Montclair State University and found that over 98% of respondents had heard of the term “GMO,” but only 8% of consumers were familiar with the definition.
- “Organic” foods are often credited with health and nutrition benefits that the food does not have (Noone, 2019). This is in part due to media framing that portrays organic as ethical, healthier, and more nutritious (Meyers & Abrams, 2010).
- The “natural” label, which is not well regulated, has various meanings depending on who is using it (Nosowitz, 2019).
Our project started in 2017 when members of our team formed the Science of GMOs working group at UConn (gmo.uconn.edu). Our team was one of the eight selected for NTAE’s second annual grant program, and we expanded the project to encompass additional food marketing labels and include new members with other areas of expertise. Team members include representation from nutrition, biotechnology, youth development, communications, and food marketing.
Dr. Cindy Tian, a member of our team and biotechnology professor, answered some common questions about GMOs for audiences:
- Why is there not a human trial on GMOs? It is not required by the regulation of the FDA. However, a myriad of tests and safety requirements must be conducted/met before any GMOs are marketed. Humans have been consuming GMOs since 1996 and not a single credible adverse event has been reported.
- Do GMOs change our genome? No. Everything biological we eat today has been genetically modified mainly by breeding and a few by genetic engineering. Humans have been eating genetically modified food since the beginning of time. We are still humans.
- Is our genome pristine? No. Like other species, our DNA changes constantly. DNA molecules are very fragile, they break all the time, get sewed back and many times wrong pieces get put together. If these changes happen in our germ cells, they may get passed down. But this is rare. Through millions of years of evolution, the human genome accumulated 10,000 copies of viral DNA molecules.
- Speaking of virus, the COVID vaccines (in the US) are GMOs. The viral genome is broken down and only small pieces are used for the vaccines so we will never get COVID from the vaccine itself (unlike some earlier Polio vaccines).
Members of our team are also offering the virtual course Let’s Talk GMOs: Creating Consistent Communication Messages. Participants are introduced to the basics of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They will learn how to create consistent communication messages and manage dialogue processes about GMOs with various audiences. The asynchronous course is available on-demand; it has eight online modules with instructors from UConn. The fee is $49. Register online at s.uconn.edu/gmocourse.
Game development was made possible through support by the Learning Games Lab at New Mexico State University. An eFieldbook about our project will be available on Connect Extension in early September. The Extension Foundation supports this team through key informant expertise to help grow the overall project. We had additional funding and support from UConn Extension and Northeast AgEnhancement and Farm Credit East.