Are Genetically Modified Foods Bad for you?

The Moment of Truth: Are GMOs Bad for You?

Julia Kirkpatrick, MS, CSCS

 One of the most popular, nutrition-based fears among health-conscious consumers is the fear surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered foods. This sounds like a reasonable concern, right? Eating an ear of corn that has been ‘modified’ by technology seems fairly unnatural and potentially poisonous? After all, thirty-eight countries prohibit the cultivation of genetically engineered crops! [5].  

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History

 First, let’s hop into a GMO time machine:  Humans have been modifying plants and crops for thousands of years (dating back to 8000 B.C.) to feed themselves. This is not anything new!!!  While time has allowed for technological advancements, genetic modification has been taking place for thousands of years, well before anyone of us was here! [1] 

Flash forward to the mid-1900s. Genetically engineered food was commercialized and available on the market. Is this a positive? Yes! Our current technology allows for a very, very careful transfer of DNA from one species to another species, rather than using the traditional process, which “may produce a greater range of non-controllable modifications” [1]. 

Remember, GMOs have been around for thousands of years!!  At this point, does it seem ironic that technology has allowed for safer and more meticulous modification of food, yet more people are developing concern? 

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Current Day Genetically Modified Food

Why do we need genetically modified food today?

 

Well here’s the problem: Humans are taking over the earth and they’re coming in quick and coming in hungry. Unfortunately, there’s not enough food to go around! Even more,  it doesn’t help when crops are being destroyed by herbicides and insects [3,6].

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Here’s a solution to help the problem: Careful genetic modification of food allows for increased herbicide tolerance and less destruction by pesky insects! This means genetic modification allows for crop and yield production to go up!  And, as added bonuses: increased nutritional value [3,5] and reduction of toxin content that is carcinogenic to humans and animals [5].

 

Here’s a fun statistic: Genetic engineering of crops has increased from 1.7 million hectares to 185.1 million hectares in 2016 [5]. What is a hectare you ask? One square kilometer.

 

Here’s another fun statistic: An area today can feed more than 3,000 times what it could 10,000 years ago [1]. That sounds super fun and super helpful in an ever-increasing human population!

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Popular GMO foods on the market:

Corn, Soybeans, Wheat, Potatoes, Squash, Apples, Alfalfa, and Salmon [3] 

Other items on the market that utilize genetic modification:

Antibiotics, enzymes, amino acids (proteins), and vitamins [1]

 

With all of these foods and supplements genetically modified, can you actually avoid genetic modification? Probably not.

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This also begs the *bigger* question.....

Are GMOs safe for consumption?

Yes. As to date, there are no human studies that have demonstrated negative health effects that can be directly linked to the consumption of genetically engineered food. ZERO!

 

Here is a statement from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, published in 2018: “Evidence from primary human studies did not reveal any clear association between adverse human effects and human consumption of either plan or animal foods produced using engineering technologies” [3].

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This leads to another question: why are GMOs portrayed in such a negative light?

 

Unfortunately, a few studies elicited high media attention are due to findings that seem alarming [6]!!

 

However, the vast majority of studies that have found significant negative findings as a result of GMO consumption in animals have been: retracted [7] or re-analyzed using statistical applications to correct for data analysis flaws resulting in insignificant findings of negative outcomes [1-5].

 

In other words, the studies that found negative findings when re-analyzed end up contributing to the growing body of evidence that GMOs are totally safe!

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It’s a shame that a few studies have resulted in disproportional negative media attention.

 

But this is something that has occurred repeatedly throughout history!  Way back in 1948, the famous Framingham Heart study revealed that excess cholesterol in our blood increases our risk of heart disease.  By extension, may physicians assumed that eating higher cholesterol foods like egg yolks would increase blood cholesterol and have negative health effects.  The media coverage on these early theories led to the fat phobia phase. [8]

 

But here is the kicker, no studies at that point had shown that cholesterol consumption actually increased blood levels.

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Today, more and more research suggests that some degree of cholesterol consumption is harmless, if not healthy. But with the media’s misrepresentation, the egg’s reputation will forever be tarnished.

 

This example helps illustrate when science is misinterpreted and spun by the media, the public perception of the truth becomes tainted.

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There is a massive gap between the consensus on genetically modified foods within the scientific community and the general public. Any negative finding (which is not always substantiated or portrayed accurately) fear mongers individuals into a long-lasting or permanent belief that is unsubstantiated by scientific evidence.

 

Unfortunately, diet science tends to be presented to the public as a black and white matter.  Egg yolks were once BAD, but maybe not so bad today.  GMOs were once BAD, but today, we realize…not so much.

So, Bottom Line Takeaways:

 

  • Consumers fear GMOs

  • A FEW studies came out that drastically exacerbated the public’s fear but…

  • There is plenty of research to support the safety and benefits of genetically engineered food!

 

Happy eating!

 

References

 

  1. Azevedo, J. L., & Araujo, W. L. (2003). Genetically modified crops: environmental and human health concerns. Mutation Research/Reviews in Mutation Research544(2–3), 223–233. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mrrev.2003.07.002

  2. Domingo, J. L. (2016). Safety assessment of GM plants: An updated review of the scientific literature. Food and Chemical Toxicology95, 12–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2016.06.013

  3. Edge, M. S., Kunkel, M. E., Schmidt, J., & Papoutsakis, C. (2018). 2015 Evidence Analysis Library Systematic Review on Advanced Technology in Food Production. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics118(6), 1106-1127.e9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2017.08.005

  4. Panchin, A. Y., & Tuzhikov, A. I. (2017). Published GMO studies find no evidence of harm when corrected for multiple comparisons. Critical Reviews in Biotechnology37(2), 213–217. https://doi.org/10.3109/07388551.2015.1130684

  5. Pellegrino, E., Bedini, S., Nuti, M., & Ercoli, L. (2018). Impact of genetically engineered maize on agronomic, environmental and toxicological traits: a meta-analysis of 21 years of field data. Scientific Reports8(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-21284-2

  6. Raman, R. (2017). The impact of Genetically Modified (GM) crops in modern agriculture: A review. GM Crops & Food8(4), 195–208. https://doi.org/10.1080/21645698.2017.1413522

  7. Séralini, G.-E., Clair, E., Mesnage, R., Gress, S., Defarge, N., Malatesta, M., … de Vendômois, J. S. (2012). RETRACTED: Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicology50(11), 4221–4231. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2012.08.005

  8. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/03/06/518152471/unscrambling-the-nutrition-science-on-eggs