Understanding the Nature (or not) of GMOs
Understanding the altered nature of genetically modified foods is the first step in understanding what and what not to buy.
Here are a few facts about genetically modified or genetically engineered foods:
You are probably consuming them at a much higher rate that you imagine. The Center for Food Safety reports that upwards of 70 percent of processed foods sold in supermarkets – foods like soda, soups, crackers and condiments – contain genetically modified or engineered ingredients.
So far, the United States has failed to pass any laws regulating the use of GM or GE foods. By comparison, almost 50 countries require labels on GM and GE foods and many have severe restrictions or bans on GMO* food production or sale. In the United States, there are no government regulatory agencies tracking GMO foods for problems.
While no long-term studies have been done on the effect of GMOs on humans, a number of studies conducted over the past decade have shown that GMOs can increase levels of toxins in the human body, build resistance to antibiotics, suppress the immune system and lead to certain cancers.
So what is a GMO exactly?
GMOs are foods like crops, meats and seafood that have been subject to genetic engineering. That is, technology takes DNA, the genetic material of a plant or animal species, and forces it into the genetic code of another, unrelated species.
The majority of GMOs grown worldwide, more than 80 percent, are created to be tolerant to herbicides. In other words, in order for farmers to protect crops from pests and bacterial/fungal invaders, they need to spray them with heavy doses of herbicides.
GMO crops are designed to withstand this toxic assault. Anyone who has read the medical press in recent years could not help but learn that there is a growing antibiotic resistance in humans, a factor linked to our consumption not only of GMO foods but of antibiotic-treated animals that provide food (animals are not only fed GMO foods, but those foods are laced with antibiotics to prevent disease in the commonly crowded conditions on factory farms).
The science continues to emerge on the health effects of GMOs. A National Academy of Sciences study in Uganda noted that GE crops have the potential to introduce new toxins and allergens into our food. A study published in the Journal Reproductive Toxicology found insecticide from GMO corn in the umbilical cords of pregnant women (85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered, primarily for use in processed foods). GMO crops have already been shown to be responsible for the emergence of “super weeds” and “super bugs” (see antibiotic resistance above), requiring even stronger pesticides to be used on crops.
GMO combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes cannot occur in nature or traditional breeding. And because our bodies are designed to process real foods, the potential health effects of altered foods are of enormous concern.
Consumers are beginning to demand the same information and protections afforded by other countries. More than 1.1 million signatures have been collected on a petition to the FDA demanding labeling of GMO foods (more than twice as many signatures as any other food petition to the FDA). More than 90 percent of Americans surveyed indicated a support for GMO labeling according to a survey by independent national pollster, The Mellman Group, on behalf of the activist group Just Label It.
If the health risks of GMOs concern you, you are probably already looking for products that do not contain them, but that can be tricky. The Center for Food Safety can help here with their list of store brands that have been recognized as being non-GMO.
Additionally, the Non-GMO Project provides a verification label for products that have met best practices for GMO avoidance. The Non-GMO Project also offers a product search by brand and category of food, as well as an iPhone app for quick reference when shopping.
Buying organic can be the first step in avoiding GMOs, but it is not fail-safe. Under the National Organic Program, GMOs are excluded, but there is no testing or verification process as yet.
The most common GMOs are found in soy (not necessarily organic tofu or soy milk, but soy used in processed foods), canola, corn, sugar beets and yellow or green squash. But when reading labels, be sure to check for hidden GMOs in common additives such as aspartame, sodium citrate, “natural” and “artificial” flavorings, high fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, malodextrin, MSG and textured vegetable protein.
Yep, GMOs are in many more places than you imagine. It’s time to pay attention and demand your foods be labeled so you can make informed decisions about what you buy.
*GMO or GME is the acronym for Genetically Modified Organism or Genetically Engineered Organism, a component in GM or GE foods.
Mary Porter is a nutrition counselor living in the Fort Hunt area. You can reach her through her website, www.betterplate.com