Ah, the sugary innocence of Halloween. You might not be trick-or-treating this year, but chances are today will still bring you more fun-sized candy bars than you know what to do with, recalling those childhood pillowcases full of—in order of descending preference—Baby Ruths, Tootsie Rolls, and Smarties. So as you sink your no-longer-young-and-cavity-free teeth into your favorite treats tonight, consider this: Pretty much everything you're eating is confected from sweet, sweet GMOs.
Nearly all the ingredients in most mass-produced candies are made from genetically modified crops. Let's start with sugar: 50 percent of the sweet stuff sold in the US is made from the massively successful, herbicide-resistant sugar beet, which large-scale farms can spray with abandon without damaging the lucrative root vegetable growing underground. As if candy weren't sweet enough, most producers also add corn syrup: it's both sweeter than and cheaper than sugar, so a little of it a goes a long way, and it brings that chewy-gooey texture to candies such as fudge and nougat fillings.
Up to 85 percent of US-grown corn is genetically engineered to be, like sugar beets, not only herbicide-resistant but also to produce its own insecticide, which seems appropriate for Halloween in sheer freakiness. Many candies also add cornstarch, for texture, and use soy lecithin—aka the dried sludge left over from the soybean oil refining process—as an emulsifier. Over 90 percent of US-grown soybeans are genetically modified.
"Most of the candies on the market do contain genetically engineered ingredients," confirms Rebecca Spector, west coast director of the Center for Food Safety, an environmental advocacy organization. "And that's a concern."
As Spector points out, it's difficult to determine whether or not GM foods are actually bad for consumers' health, because no long-term, conclusive studies have been performed.
"There hasn't been testing on these products," she says. "We do know that they're sprayed heavily with pesticides. What we don't know is, what are the levels of residues that remain on these foods once they're processed? How much of that are we ingesting?"
There is some evidence suggesting that the consumption of GM foods can lead to digestive issues, including one known as leaky gut syndrome, whose symptoms run the gamut from bloating to gas to cramps. Yum.
Concerns about the effects of GMOs on human health—as well as the crops' impact on the environment—have led 64 countries to require that GM food products be labeled as such, enabling consumers to choose whether or not they want to eat them. The US doesn't have any such laws on the books, and that's the way the big candy companies—not to mention the GM seed giants Monsanto and DuPont—want to keep it. Although more than 20 states have introduced more than 60 bills to require GMO labeling or prohibit the growth of GM crops, the bills are always narrowly defeated. The big companies and corporations that don't want see such bills pass donate millions of dollars that go towards television opposition ads and mailers, Spector says, and the individual donors and small natural foods companies that donate to pro-labeling activities just can't compete.
"There aren't unlimited resources," she says. "But companies like Monsanto? They can afford to spend millions."
Candy giants might not be able to donate millions to anti-labeling campaigns, but they do what they can. In 2012, California voters defeated Proposition 37, which would have enacted mandatory labeling of GM foods. Mars contributed $376,650 to the anti-labeling fight; Hershey's spent $493,900.
Western states will have another chance to vote for or against labeling laws this election day, when bills introduced in Washington and Oregon are slated to be decided. But the candy companies aren't slacking this year, either: Hershey put up $380,000 against the bill in Colorado, and $320,000 against the one in Washington.
That might add a sour note to today's Halloween candy binge.