Q: Earth Day is coming up, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk with my kids about GMOs and pesticides. I'm just not sure exactly how to do that. Can you give me some pointers on how to discuss this topic with my children so they can understand why I want us all to transition to more non-GMO and organic food? -Mary E., Charleston, S.C.
A: It's great that you want to broach this topic with your kids. Children can't possibly make good choices unless they learn about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and pesticides-the major food issues of their time. And children are far smarter than many adults give them credit for.
Exactly how you want to bring up the topic might vary depending on your kids' ages, but here are some general guidelines from my book Going Against GMOs.
A Simple Beginning Conversation about GMOs
A beginning conversation with a young child might go something like this:
"There have been changes in some common foods that weren't like that when I was your age. Some plants that we eat today are made by scientists instead of nature."
Your child might ask: How and why do scientists make those plants?
"Scientists put different kinds of genes into corn, so the corn doesn't die when you spray chemicals on it, or the corn might contain chemicals to kill bugs inside of it. It keeps the insects away and companies can use weedkillers on it, but it isn't a good idea for humans or animals to eat food that contains chemicals that kill insects and weeds. That's why we want to do our best to avoid foods that have been produced in this way.
"Foods that are produced in this new way are called genetically modified, abbreviated as GMO. They're more like fake foods instead of real foods that nature provides us."
You can also explain that not all genetically modified foods have bug killers in them or weed killers on them. Other types of GMOs are potatoes or apples that don't turn brown after slicing.
It's probably best not to make the first conversation too long. Explain the subject in bits and pieces, so kids can digest the information. Let them research it on their own by reading kid-friendly information on the Internet. They may come back to you with questions, and you can gradually give them more information.
Making Changes as a Family to Eat non-GMO Foods
Making changes in long-standing eating habits always works best when kids are involved and they understand the reasons why changes are being made. Ask your children if they'd be willing to come to the grocery store with you and help you choose organic fruits and vegetables and find packages of food products that have a label with a butterfly on it (the Non-GMO Project Verified symbol), or preferably a label with a circle that says USDA Organic. This is a great way to teach kids what to look for when they become food shoppers. Children often get engaged in hunting down healthier foods and tend to think of it as a fun game.
At home, bring in healthier substitutes and alternatives to GMO foods you used to use. Generally speaking, that means avoiding processed foods and eating more whole foods (fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds).
Also, keep in mind that there are organic alternatives to virtually every kind of food. If your family doesn't feel like it can give up certain foods-tacos, for example-make sure to buy organic ingredients to make them. That's the easy way to avoid GMOs and pesticides. Using organic ingredients doesn't have to be expensive either: Develop an eye for bargains, and stock up on organic foods you use in recipes when they're on sale.
When your children are away from home, it's much more difficult to control what they eat. But you can do your best to help them eat non-GMO by buying non-GMO and organic snacks, and having those foods at home ready for your kids to take at a moment's notice.
Finally, always pack your children's lunches. Unfortunately, GMOs are often found among the ingredients of school-prepared lunches.
A Handy Way to Remember GMO Food Crops
One way to teach your kids how to remember the genetically modified crops currently on the market is to teach them that there are 3 Cs, 2 Ss, 2 As, 2 Ps,* a Y, and a Z. (The 3 Cs and the 2 Ss are listed first because they are the most common genetically modified crops hidden in a variety of ingredients in most packaged convenience foods.)
The genetically modified crops are:
Corn(as in corn oil, cornmeal, cornstarch, corn syrup, hominy, polenta, and other corn-based ingredients)
Canola (as in canola oil)
Cottonseed (as in cottonseed oil)
Sugar Beets (as in "sugar" in an ingredient, which is almost certainly a combination of sugar from both sugar cane and GM sugar beets-and also in foods that contain beet sugar)
Soybeans (as in soybean oil, soy protein, soy lecithin, soy milk, tofu, and other soy-based ingredients)
Alfalfa, which is fed to livestock
Papaya (from Hawaii and China)
Yellow Squash and Zucchini
Teach your kids to either avoid these foods, or look for USDA Organic or Non-GMO Project Verified versions of these foods, as well as indirect sources of GMOs such as meat, milk, and eggs from animals that are fed these foods.
* Note: Another P, pink flesh Pineapple, was approved by the FDA in December 2016 and is slated to come to the U.S. market within a few years.