GMOs: Yes or no? Local restaurants seek to meet demand for non-GMO foods

A HIGHER STANDARD: In opting to purchase mostly non-GMO and organic products for his restaurant — including only non-GMO corn chips and fryer oil — Mamacita’s owner John Atwater says he is trying to use his purchasing power to send a message. “The more interest we place on holding products up to a higher standard, I think that educates everyone, from the employees that work with us to the vendors that sell the products,” says Atwater. Photo by Tim Robison

On April 27, Chipotle Mexican Grill became the first national restaurant chain to ban genetically modified ingredients from its menu. But while the company has made headlines across the U.S. for its bold stance against the industry’s claim that all food is created equal, many Asheville restaurants have been waging a much quieter war of their own for years.

Mamacita’s owner John Atwater, for example, says he tries to use his restaurant’s purchasing power to send a message.

“The more interest we place on holding products up to a higher standard, I think that educates everyone, from the employees that work with us to the vendors that sell the products,” says Atwater. “It lets the food brokers that represent large companies know that some of their products aren’t going to be well-received in Asheville. I know I’m losing out on profit dollars, but it’s like I’m voting with every purchase.”

Mamacita’s offers customers such GMO-free or organic foods as chips, tortillas, black beans, rice, kale, sweet potatoes, spinach, bell peppers and quinoa.

Atwater aims for “transparency — where we’re sourcing our food from and wanting to know as much about the ingredients we’re using as possible,” he explains. “It’s a slow process, but every time I open a box and see organic or non-GMO on the side, I smile.”

Atwater hopes to eventually make 75 percent of the food he serves either non-GMO or organic.

Truth in advertising

According to the U.S. Healthful Food Council, the average American adult buys a meal or snack from a restaurant roughly six times a week, says Dr. Angela Hind, an Asheville physician and pure food consultant who founded You, M.D.

“When you are served a beautiful meal in a restaurant, you don’t know what’s in it, and it’s very easy just to ignore that,” she points out. “That transparency is just not there like it is when you visit the grocery or when you’re at home cooking for yourself and know what you’re putting in the pan.”

Randy Talley, president and co-owner of the Green Sage Café, aims to change that. “Restaurants,” he notes, “create a seamless experience for diners. You come in and we feed you like mom, and the perception is everything is nourishing like mom’s food.”

But that might not always be the case, he points out. For example, a restaurant might use the word “organic” loosely, creating the impression that everything on the menu comes from the farm right around the corner. “When I use the word ‘organic,’ it needs to mean certified organic,” says Talley, a former natural foods grocer.

Green Sage recently drafted a policy that calls for it to be a 100 percent GMO-free restaurant by 2016, Talley reports.

Demand vs. cost

In the last few years, natural food stores and conventional grocery outlets alike have seen increased consumer demand for organic and non-GMO foods. In 2014, organic products were available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and nearly three out of four conventional grocery stores, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Corina Casanova, president and chief operating officer of Chenoweth Properties, says her typical grocery list contains 90 to 95 percent organic or non-GMO products. And when she dines out with her family, “We typically choose our restaurants carefully. I am far less likely to choose a restaurant that doesn’t source their food locally and/or organically.”

Consumers, says the USDA, prefer organically produced food because of concerns about health, the environment and animal welfare, and they’re willing to pay more to get it.

That’s true locally too, says Asheville City Schools psychologist Kelly Weller, who tends to buy organic or non-GMO foods whenever it seems feasible. “Where we live, I think people will pay more because they care.”

Candler native Christina Howard, an occupational therapist who’s also with the city schools, says that although cost is an issue when she dines out, she would support restaurants in her area that raised their prices in order to offer organic and non-GMO foods.

“There really are not any restaurants in Candler that state that they offer organic and non-GMO foods, except maybe the local coffee shop,” notes Howard.

Talley, however, says the Green Sage thinks about its customers’ wallets when it considers adding more organic and non-GMO items to the menu.

“We have consciously added more and more of those ingredients since we opened in 2008, and we really only increased our prices accordingly this year,” says Talley. “We’ve always been concerned that the benchmark that people will pay for food is really what people will pay everywhere else, and we can’t be that much more.”

Mamacita’s, too, will continue to add more such items when Atwater finds affordable replacements. “Not everything we have is non-GMO or organic, but we’d like to be there,” he says. “It’s a pretty big hurdle, but we hope to get there and still be able to be an affordable eatery.”


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5 thoughts on “GMOs: Yes or no? Local restaurants seek to meet demand for non-GMO foods

  1. Brooks

    1. “GMO” means “genetically modified organism”, right? I am having trouble understanding precisely how consumption of a GMO is harmful in any specific way. If you served me, say, corn, and told me beforehand that it was GMO corn, I’d smile, think, “How thoughtful,” and sink my teeth right in. Will somebody please tell me how this is harmful/unhealthy/risky for me, personally?
    2. “Organic” is one of those terms that gets a lot of use in the local area, and it means to me that it is grown without chemicals or raised without being fed produce containing chemicals. I get that for the most part, and to me at my level of simplicity, it means that I am consuming something completely natural (another great term for anything and everything marketers want to convince us is good for us). I am comfortable knowing that some government agency is out there protecting me from the risks I might otherwise be taking, eating either organic or non-organic food. I suspect most ordinary folks also think this way, vague, muddled, and simplistic as it may be. I just have yet to read about the percentage of deaths in a population incurred by eating only non-organic food over the course of their lifetimes. How does one trace a death to the habitual consumption of non-organic foods?
    3. Don’t get me wrong. I support all this talk about opposing GMO’s, supporting organic products, and a few other good-sounding ideas summed up in language that’s common in this region. In these two particular cases, I’m increasingly sceptical about why that should be the case (gasp! moan!). I don’t see the connection, either, between the GMO concerns and organic concerns. Sometimes it feels to me as though someone has demonized GMO’s and “non-organic” over time, and it’s just not clear why anymore.

    • Jim

      None that I know of. It’s a gimmick for the hipsters and liberals to pretend they’re smart on top of hating on a Koch owned business. In reality though, the same mentality that ships US coal and grains to Africa while a bunch of morons rally around global warming and GMO’s is funny. But these are the same people that wonder why their property taxes go up yet are so busy to be bothered with asking how come. And why the liberals have become entrenched as well. No one from the media to the sheep cares enough to ascertain or care where their money is going, what’s it paying for, who’s spending it, or the outcome of doing so.

    • jess

      You’re eating crops that have been genetically altered to be resistant to herbicides that would naturally otherwise kill them. The last study that GMO s were safe, was done in 1992 by the FDA on a tomato, claiming it wasn’t “inheretly dangerous.” Yet, no other studies have been done in the effects on a person’s body during its life span. Sixty four countries mandate labeling so far, if not banned yet. “Crucial to the discussion of GMO s and their dangers is a chemical called glyphosate.” It’s prominate in GMO crops and causes a wide range of illnesses.
      I wish I looked into these things earlier than I did. It’s scary, but worth the knowledge. I now value my gallbladder, liver and kidneys so much more :)

  2. Kelly Prime

    Mamacitas is also a Living Wage Certified business! The 3 P’s of business is exemplified by John Atwater at Mamacitas: People, Planet, Profit. This is how it’s done Asheville. I hope we will all support his business, which in turn help Asheville’s economy!

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