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Winter is upon us. If you're tucked away in the Pacific Northwest corner of the States like I am, that means another 4-5 months of soup season. Days are short, rain is steady, and the bright, fruit-forward flavors of summer have faded into a distant, sultry memory. It’s the season of donning our waterproof shells and thick wooly socks. And, if you’re of the gardening variety, you’re in for a wholesome winter harvest of chicory, endives, radishes, swiss chard, rutabaga, mustard greens and leeks. 

As winter deepens, our food preferences naturally and psychologically change with it. The human body is miraculously hardwired to crave and eat foods that keep us warm and full during colder months. With the outdoor grill turned off, we find ourselves gravitating towards our indoor crockpots and ovens. Our bodies are asking us, telling us, to eat with the seasons. To fuel up during the winter months, regulating our internal temperature with foods that warm and nourish us. 

The key to local + seasonal

Tuning into the seasons allows us to engage with food in a deeper, richer way. This awareness also invites a rooted sense of place, where we become aware of and even celebrate the foods local to our geographic environments. And when you combine what’s seasonal with what’s local, you get the freshest flavor. This means a guarantee that your food didn’t take a cross-continental road trip (bolstered with preservatives) to arrive at your grocery store. It also means that your food bears witness to where you live, telling the story of local farmers and growers who are dedicated towards offering you the region’s hallmark, most natural flavors.

The garden’s ripest and brightest

Kitchen counter: A cutting board with figs quartered, dark purple grapes and a bowl covered in muslin and flowers in the background

It wasn’t until I booked a one-way ticket to Europe this past summer that I truly understood the significance of eating locally and seasonally. After months of exploring Swiss, Austrian, German, Dutch and Danish flavors, I spent September living with two vegan chefs in the heart of Tuscany’s Arezzo region. That's where I witnessed hyper-local and seasonally-expressive cuisine on display. We passed the early autumn days harvesting food from the garden, mushroom hunting and cooking meals that touted Tuscany’s best. The ripest and brightest ingredients were main characters in our shared meals, and whatever the garden lacked we sourced from local producers. It was a slow, intentional practice of place-ful eating. I learned to curb my cravings for non-regional foods, and enjoyed the (almost meditative) practice of eating what was available, seasonal, and true to the region.

Bold, regional flavor

The local-centric, seasonal lifestyle around food I witnessed in Tuscany (and a number of other European countries) struck a chord in me. I wanted to understand what made freshness the key ingredient to so many of the dishes and homemade meals I enjoyed, specifically in Italy. What I witnessed and learned is that authentic Italian cuisine involves simple ingredients, largely dictated by climate and natural landscape. The flavors emblematic of Italian food culture pay homage to regional accessibility and seasonal availability. You won’t find an Italian snacking on fresh tomato bruschetta in January, or cooking up zuppa di castagne e ceci (chestnut and chickpea soup) in July. When your main ingredients boast bold regional flavor, it’s about maximizing those ingredients and letting the food speak for itself. 

Location laws and unruly food additives

Location plays such a critical role in Italian food production that Italy has passed a number of laws to protect the authenticity of products made in particular regions. And, speaking of laws, according to the New World Report, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) doesn’t allow additives in food production unless they’ve been proven to be unharmful to human consumption. The FDA has taken a different, more reactive approach in the States, where food additives are allowed into food production until they’re proven to be directly harmful to consumption. This means that food in the U.S. is not only likely to contain GMOs, but also foods rich in growth hormones and chemical preservatives to ensure a long shelf-life for our out-of-season eating habits and cravings. Not so in the larger European narrative around food, where (generally speaking) seasonal rhythms and locality play critical roles in the enjoyment of food closer to its origin and peak freshness. 

Take it from the Italians – Eat local and seasonal foods

On one hand, prioritizing local and seasonal food products allows you to bypass highly processed foods that tend to be low in nutritional density. When food products are engineered to withstand time and travel, you can bet that nutritional saliency takes a hit. According to the Center for Food Safety, about 70-80% of processed foods in the U.S. contain GMOs. So, eating seasonally and buying locally-produced food as much as possible helps you shop with confidence, knowing that your food was made as nature intended, not bioengineered in a lab. You’re also reducing environmental impacts by choosing organic, non-GMO and local products. Less food transportation = lower carbon footprint. And, you’re keeping money in your local community by supporting producers and growers in your area. Finally, farm-fresh, locally grown food picked at peak ripeness is JAM-packed with flavor. 

A white dinner plate on an outdoor table. The meal is couscous, stewed meat, potatoes and carrots, garnished with parsley and flowers.

When it comes to winter in a maritime climate, we all need our seasonal survival strategies. Since leaving Tuscany’s warm, Mediterranean embrace and expressively fresh, regional cuisine, I’ve been seeking out ways to enjoy the winter harvest in my Pacific Northwest home climate. Knowing what’s in season has been the simplest way to add more local freshness to my diet. Italy’s winter harvest is actually very similar to that of the United States, with squash, mushrooms, cabbage, lentils, and clementine and mandarins in full bloom. Another method to access local, seasonal foods is through community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, where fresh produce is sourced from farmers local to your area. CSAs allow you to learn about fruits and veggies you may not have chosen at the grocery store, expanding your food horizons and palette preferences. And, winter farmers markets offer local and seasonal produce that’s readily available and assuredly delicious.

Escaping winter’s doldrums with fresh flavor

Even during these chilly months, there’s time to begin exploring a varied seasonal diet. Seasonally-bound and locally-based menus have the power to pull us from winter’s doldrums and feel connected to the place we’re in. Specifically in the Northwest, our seasonal rains and comparatively mild winters support cool-season crops even after the first frost. The winter harvest is robust and ready with flavor to nourish, sustain, and delight, even in the chilliest of seasons.   

(Pro tip! Next summer, take a moment to remember the dark, languid days of winter ahead. Flash freeze your summer harvest of blueberries, strawberries, peaches and raspberries. Then, on a cold winter’s night when you need a zing of summer, whip out those frozen berries and make yourself a ripe, tart treat.)

*Photos courtesy of the author


Madi BurkeGuest writer: Madi Burke. As a writer, explorer, and incessantly curious person, Madi Burke has always felt passionate about the natural world, our lived environments, and how to create more equitable systems that bring people closer to the nourishment and quality of life that comes with an integrated relationship to the earth. After receiving her undergraduate degree in sociology and speech communications, Madi went on to lead cycling trips in national parks, support nonprofit development, and now gets to help organizations tell their story as a freelance writer and brand manager.

At the Non-GMO Project, we believe everyone has the right to know what's in their food and deserves access to non-GMO choices. For the past 15 years, we've protected that right with the most trustworthy, rigorous certification in North America for GMO avoidance. 

With new and experimental GMOs entering the food supply unlabeled and unregulated, our work is more important than ever. But why does protecting your right to choose matter to you? What's at stake when we don't have clearly labeled, Non-GMO Project Verified choices?

Food is essential

Food is more than just the fuel we use to get our bodies from point A to point B. It's indispensable to our very existence and elemental to our experience as human beings. Food is a part of our traditions. Our cultural and social identities are intertwined with our food choices — and choices is the key word here.

The choices we make have consequences. When exercised collectively, their power grows. When we vote with our dollars we can help move the food system towards a nourishing, sustainable model that truly supports both people and the planet. And once we're paying attention to the kind of food system we want, we wake up to the critical need for regenerative practices, fair working conditions for producers and workers and the shift toward clean energy.

As our awareness about food grows, so does our realization of interconnectedness with our living environment.

The other label

The Butterfly label is second to none in rigor and transparency for GMO avoidance. Since 2007, the Non-GMO Project has monitored genetic engineering developments to preserve and build the non-GMO food supply. Genetic engineering is a rapidly evolving field — new GMOs aren't regulated or labeled by government agencies in the same way as traditional GMOs that contain DNA from other species. Most consumers want clear, meaningful and timely labeling of GMOs. 

On January 1, 2022, the new federal bioengineered (BE) food labeling law went into full effect. The law was created in part because of public demand. However, the BE labeling law leaves out many common products made with GMOs. That means shoppers using BE disclosure labels to guide their choices don't have all the information they need. 

Here are some of the products the BE label misses, and the Butterfly label catches:

For more information on the BE labeling law, check out What You Need To Know About Bioengineered (BE) Food Labeling.

Protecting your right to know and more

GMOs entered the food supply so discreetly that many people in the natural foods industry worried non-GMO resources such as organic seeds would be lost. In fact, that concern is part of what motivated Non-GMO Project founder and executive director, Megan Westgate. To this day, GMO contamination remains a major concern. When contamination events happen, we lose the genetic diversity of plant species that were cared for by our ancestors for millennia. The Non-GMO Project's segregation and testing requirements for high risk crops help to protect the non-GMO food supply, which in turn protects our entire food and seed supply. In the face of disruptions and extreme weather events, diversity means resilience. 

As we live through the uncertainties brought by climate change, pandemic impacts and supply chain disruption, we become more aware of how interconnected our global systems truly are. Consumer concern has expanded. There is a growing awareness that our choices have implications beyond our immediate welfare. 

Broadening our sphere of our concern is a good thing. That's how empathy grows, powerful coalitions are formed, and the systemic change we need so desperately becomes possible. 

Our connectedness is our strength — and every butterfly effect starts with the Butterfly.

February is Black History Month, and this year's celebration focuses on Black Health & Wellness. This theme goes beyond physical well-being, encompassing mental and spiritual health while honoring the practitioners and scholars who have worked in Black communities.

Food is, of course, part of every community's health and wellness, and it's a key component of holistic health. Food is an essential part of cultural identity and belonging, and it underscores relationships to the land and to each other.

To celebrate Black History Month, we're highlighting a few of the amazing nonprofit organizations across the United States whose work in food and agriculture promotes the well-being of Black Americans. 

This selection is by no means exhaustive! It represents a fraction of the many BIPOC-led nonprofits working toward a just and equitable food system for all. 

Urban Growers Collective

"Urban Growers Collective’s work aims to address the inequities and structural racism that exist in the food system and in communities of color." 

Chicago-based Urban Growers Collective (UGC) focuses on urban agriculture as a tool for economic revitalization, food security and overall community health. The Black- and women-led nonprofit operates eight urban farms across 11 acres, predominantly on Chicago's South Side. In 2021, Time Out featured UGC in their segment on "10 Black-owned businesses that are shaping Chicago right now."

If you are in the Chicago area, you can support Urban Growers Collective by buying their products. Their latest events, job training and employment opportunities can be found on the UGC Facebook page — visit often for fresh listings.

Soul Fire Farm

"Soul Fire Farm is an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system." 

Soul Fire Farm is an 80-acre regenerative farm and education center located on Mohican land in New York State. The team grows food, soil and activism — and they do it all while investing in the next generation of skilled Black and Brown growers. 

Soul Fire Farm's impacts include a community-supported agriculture program to address food apartheid and on-farm immersion programs for growers of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx heritage to participate in a culturally-relevant food system. Nationally, team members contribute their powerful voices to antiracist and food sovereignty work (should you ever have the opportunity to enjoy Leah Penniman's powerful keynotes or Naima Penniman's inspiring poetry, do not pass it up!). The workshop Uprooting Racism in the Food System is an essential resource for nonprofits and food sector organizations.

Jubilee Justice

"Our mission is to heal and transform the wounds suffered by the people and the land through reparative genealogy and regenerative agriculture."

Jubilee Justice addresses antiracism in focused initiatives and at scale. They pursue reconciliation with small groups while organizing larger initiatives that help Black farmers achieve economic stability through sustainable agriculture. 

The Jubilee Justice Journeys Program facilitates difficult conversations between individuals across race and class, creating "conditions for people to self-reflect and take a deep dive into how the issues surrounding Land, Race, Money & Spirit have defined America’s past and reimage and actively lean into a new future."

The Black Farmers Program supports sustainable, regenerative practices that build economic stability and soil health for the Black-owned farms that adopt them. One Jubilee Justice project — systems of rice intensification (SRI) — helps farmers transition parts of their land to organic rice farming using holistic methods to increase yields and decrease costs. 

With an unflinching gaze at American history and how it has led us to the present day, Jubilee Justice works toward a better, healthier and more just future.

National Black Food & Justice Alliance

"The National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA) is a coalition of Black-led organizations aimed at developing Black leadership, supporting Black communities, organizing for Black self-determination, and building institutions for Black food sovereignty & liberation."

The National Black Food and Justice Alliance brings together dozens of member organizations to address regional and national initiatives to elevate Black food sovereignty and land ownership. 

For example, NBFJA is working to preserve Black farmland in Pembroke Township, IL in the path of a proposed pipeline. The Black Land and Power coalition acts strategically to address the massive land loss inflicted on Black Farmers during the last century. 

NBFJA's membership includes some familiar names, such as Soul Fire Farm and Jubilee Justice, as well as many organizations worth learning more about.

The impacts of an unjust food system run deeply through nearly all aspects of life, braided into well-being, autonomy and sovereignty. Change in any of these areas inevitably impacts the others — and food system reform can transform the communities where it grows.

There is no shortage of nonprofits, activists and farmers who move the work of food justice forward, and we've named only a few of them here. You can learn more through the links shared here, or, to offer direct support to organizations in your region or across the country, visit Reparations & Rematriation for Black-Indigenous Farmers, an interactive resource hosted by Soul Fire Farm. 

Non-GMO vanilla
Many of the processed foods that we see on grocery shelves today bear an ingredient label that says “artificially flavored.” Due to the prevalence of artificial additives in the marketplace, one of the questions we are asked most frequently from savvy shoppers is: “Why did I see the word artificial in the ingredients of a Non-GMO Project Verified product?”

Similar to how the word “modified” does not mean genetically modified when referring to modified corn starch or similar products, “artificial” does not inherently mean an ingredient is GMO. “Artificial flavor” is a term used by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to classify flavorings not found in nature or derived from natural elements (plants or animals). Artificial flavors are produced through synthesis in a lab to mimic the taste and chemical makeup of a natural counterpart. They are often used to cut costs for food producers. While this production process can be achieved without any genetic engineering—no GMOs required—some producers do choose to use GMOs.

It’s important to recognize that while artificial does not inherently classify ingredients as a GMO, some artificial ingredients do come from GMOs—especially GMO microorganisms. Those are the types of artificial ingredients that are addressed in the Non-GMO Project Standard.

The best way to avoid GMOs when you shop is to look for Non-GMO Project Verified products.

What Makes A Flavor

Flavors are added to food primarily for their taste rather than nutritional value. Think of strawberry jam—while the strawberries in the jam are flavorful, they wouldn’t be considered a flavor in that product. However, in a product like strawberry gum,.strawberry would be considered a flavor because it is present solely for taste.

In the US, flavors are regulated by the FDA, which enforces the Food Additives and Amendment Act of 1958. Under this law, the FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of new food additives, including flavors, before they can be used in food products.

The FDA categorizes flavorings as either natural (e.g., vanilla bean extract, almond extract), artificial (e.g., synthesized vanillin, benzaldehyde), or spices (e.g., basil, cumin seed, or paprika). While artificial flavors are those not derived from natural elements, natural flavors are the processed and concentrated form of the plant or animal they came from. Spices are simply dried vegetables with no added flavoring. Ingredients traditionally regarded as foods, like onions, garlic, and celery, must be separately disclosed on a product’s ingredient list because they are not considered spices by the FDA.

Where We Come In

With thousands of flavoring substances in use today and varying methods used to produce them, it is impossible for consumers to tell if a product contains GMOs. That’s why the Non-GMO Project includes special provisions for evaluating microorganisms, including those used to produce artificial flavors, in our Standard. In many cases, this process goes all the way back to the growth medium the microorganism was grown on. Just like the milk from a cow that's raised on GMOs can't be Non-GMO Project Verified, a microorganism can’t eat GMOs and then produce Verified flavorings.

The next time you reach for that artificial vanilla flavor, Look for the Butterfly so you can be sure that product is non-GMO, right back to any microorganisms involved. Non-GMO Project Verified products are third-party tested and backed by our rigorous Standard to help take the guesswork out of shopping for you and your family.

Find Non-GMO Project Verified products

This content was originally posted on 5/28/2019.

Non-GMO vanillaMany of the processed foods that we see on grocery shelves today bear an ingredient label that says “artificially flavored.” Due to the prevalence of artificial additives in the marketplace, one of the questions we are asked most frequently from savvy shoppers is: “Why did I see the word artificial in the ingredients of a Non-GMO Project Verified product?”

Similar to how the word “modified” does not mean genetically modified when referring to modified corn starch or similar products, “artificial” does not inherently mean an ingredient is GMO. “Artificial flavor” is a term used by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to classify flavorings not found in nature or derived from natural elements (plants or animals). Artificial flavors are produced through synthesis in a lab to mimic the taste and chemical makeup of a natural counterpart. They are often used to cut costs for food producers. While this production process can be achieved without any genetic engineering—no GMOs required—some producers do choose to use GMOs.

It’s important to recognize that while artificial does not inherently classify ingredients as a GMO, some artificial ingredients do come from GMOs—especially GMO microorganisms. Those are the types of artificial ingredients that are addressed in the Non-GMO Project Standard. The best way to avoid GMOs when you shop is to look for Non-GMO Project Verified products.

What Makes A Flavor

Flavors are added to food primarily for their taste rather than nutritional value. Think of strawberry jam—while the strawberries in the jam are flavorful, they wouldn’t be considered a flavor in that product. However, in a product like strawberry gum or toothpaste, strawberry would be considered a flavor because it is present solely for taste.

In the US, flavors are regulated by the FDA, which enforces the Food Additives and Amendment Act of 1958. Under this law, the FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of new food additives, including flavors, before they can be used in food products.

The FDA categorizes flavorings as either natural (e.g., vanilla bean extract, almond extract), artificial (e.g., synthesized vanillin, benzaldehyde), or spices (e.g., basil, cumin seed, or paprika). While artificial flavors are those not derived from natural elements, natural flavors are the processed and concentrated form of the plant or animal they came from. Spices are simply dried vegetables with no added flavoring. Ingredients traditionally regarded as foods, like onions, garlic, and celery, must be separately disclosed on a product’s ingredient list because they are not considered spices by the FDA.

Where We Come In

With thousands of flavoring substances in use today and varying methods used to produce them, it is impossible for consumers to tell if a product contains GMOs. That’s why the Non-GMO Project includes special provisions for evaluating microorganisms, including those used to produce artificial flavors, in our Standard. In many cases, this process goes all the way back to the growth medium the microorganism was grown on. Just like milk from a cow that's raised on GMOs can't be Non-GMO Project Verified, a microorganism can't eat GMOs and then produce Verified flavorings.

The next time you reach for that artificial vanilla flavor, Look for the Butterfly so you can be sure that product is non-GMO, right back to any microorganisms involved. Non-GMO Project Verified products are third-party tested and backed by our rigorous Standard to help take the guesswork out of shopping for you and your family.

Find Non-GMO Project Verified products

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When we launched the first Non-GMO Month in October 2010, our intention was to start an annual month-long celebration to educate the public and spotlight Non-GMO Project Verified choices on shelves. Now in its seventh year, Non-GMO Month has more than quadrupled in size. Nearly 2,400 retailers have registered in 2016 to support the Non-GMO Project’s mission of preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers and providing verified non-GMO choices.

Thousands of brands and retailers across North America are helping the Butterfly land on dinner tables every day. Each autumn, we come together for 31 days to spotlight our expanding non-GMO future. We have a lot to celebrate this October: the Non-GMO Project Verified product count has soared past 40,000, the number of brands offering Verified products has climbed beyond 2,700, and the ever-increasing number of retailers offering those foods means more non-GMO choices for more people. The annual sales of Non-GMO Project Verified products are approaching $20 billion, and this success has helped drive the first-ever decrease in genetically modified crop acreage since GMO agriculture was introduced two decades ago. Thanks to your help, the Butterfly is flying high across North America!

To kick off this year’s Non-GMO Month, we hosted a special real-time event for our 1.2 million social media followers. Watch our Facebook Live video broadcast from the Community Food Co-op here in Bellingham, one of our local and long-time supporting retailers. In the video, I showcase a Non-GMO Month endcap and share tools and tips on how to make Non-GMO Month a success for your community. To help inspire your network of friends, family and fellow shoppers, please share our blog on your social media outlets: Ten ways you can get involved with Non-GMO Month 2016. Help us celebrate our biggest Non-GMO Month event yet!

Megan Westgate
Non-GMO Project Executive Director

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