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Is your menu genetically modified?

Piper Davis prides herself on knowing what goes into her menu—and what doesn’t. For her nine Grand Central Bakeries, in Portland and Seattle, she buys sustainable grains and natural meats. Lately, she’s found a new ingredient to try to avoid: genetically modified organisms.

Embraced as a way to feed the world, or vilified as “Frankenfoods,” the effects of inserting genes into common crops aren’t settled among scientists. What’s clear, however, is that many diners are getting queasy.

“There is a growing body of consumers who are not only aware of the term, but they’re concerned,” says MaryEllen Molyneaux, president of consumer research firm The Natural Marketing Institute in Harleysville, Pennsylvania. In her latest survey, 59 percent of consumers say it’s important for stores to offer foods that don’t contain GMOs—a sharp rise from 2005.

Part of their concern is not knowing what they’re eating. By law, European food labels must list genetically altered ingredients, but U.S. labels don’t. “There’s not enough science out there to help people make decisions,” says Molyneaux, “but the desire for the right to know is getting stronger every day.”

How can you know, if you’d like to weed out GMOs from your menu, or if your customers start asking? Davis and others offer a few guidelines:

Buy local, buy organic

Marc Bernard, executive chef for the Chicago-based Big Bowl eight-unit chain, distrusts produce that’s engineered to survive herbicides. He avoids them by buying from four organic or natural growers, like Heritage Prairie Farm in La Lox, Illinois.

“Our sales continue to grow because of it,” says Bernard. “People are eating here because they know they can trust Big Bowl to have a local source of food, with no GMOs.”

If you can’t buy local, look for a “certified organic” label, which excludes GMOs. Says Michael Oshman, CEO of the Green Restaurant Association in Boston, “If it’s not organic, by and large, a consumer has a reasonable expectation it could be GMO.”

Watch your oils and sweeteners

Davis found potential GMOs in her cooking oils and her soda case. “They’re often hiding in everyday ingredients,” she warns.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports 72 percent of domestic corn and 94 percent of soybeans are genetically modified. To avoid those oils, along with canola and cottonseed, a chef can buy brands labeled GMO-free—or use pure olive oil.

Davis shuns high-fructose corn sweeteners, but even sugar is suspect, unless it’s pure cane. Engineered sugar beets make up 90 percent of the U.S. crop. As for artificial sweeteners, aspartame contains an amino acid that’s often produced by gene-spliced bacteria.

Consult your phone

To fill the labeling vacuum, several firms offer shopping guides that fit on smartphones. Apps like NoMoGMO and True Food give thumbs up or down to hundreds of brands and products.

For now, concedes Davis, there’s no way to certify her entire menu as GMO-clean. Instead, she tells curious customers she’s working toward that goal. “At this point, I say we do everything we can to avoid them. But I don’t know if the local soda company we carry is using cane or beet sugar exclusively.”

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