What are GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)?
Plants and animals naturally (or with human intervention through selective breeding) develop some genetic changes. For example, selectively breeding apples to create a variety with the sweetness and color that is more marketable. On the other hand, genetically modified organisms are plants or animals that have been genetically altered with DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants, or animals. For example, corn is often genetically modified by inserting the gene for a toxin made by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (BT). This toxin has been indicated to be safe for humans to ingest, but is a deterrent for insects.
Why Genetically Alter Our Food?
There are numerous reasons for the creation of genetically altered foods including: higher crop yields, pest resistance, drought resistance, and immunity to plant viruses. All of these can then translate into cheaper produce costs in the market and in developing countries, more food to feed those in need. Another public health issue that became a crusade for manufacturers of genetically modified foods was Vitamin A deficiency. Although, uncommon in the US, in some developing countries it is very common. So, rice was “biofortified” with vitamin A and golden rice was born. However, these modifications haven’t been as effective as promised. Sure, there is some increase in yield, but only marginal and “superbugs” that are resistant to Bt I mentioned earlier have developed.
What are the Health Implications of Genetically Modified Foods?
To be perfectly honest, we don’t know. Genetically modified foods have not been around long enough for us to thoroughly monitor the effects on health over years of consumption. So far, no significant harmful effects on human health have been observed. As people become more aware of the process, over 67 countries have required that genetically modified foods are labeled. Labeling in the US is on a voluntary basis through organizations like the Non GMO Project.
If you are nervous about so many unknown factors related to the health of genetically modified foods, here are a few tips on how to limit them in your diet.
1. Purchase your food from the local farmer’s market. Locally grown food for small farms is unlikely to be GMO.
2. By organic. Foods with the organic label are not allowed to be genetically altered.
3. Purchase foods with the non GMO project label. This non-profit organization verifies that a product does not contain any GMOs.
4. Avoid the most commonly genetically altered foods: field corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and canola. Remember to look at labels for ingredients derived from these crops too! An estimated 70% of processed foods contain GMOs. Genetic modification of zucchini, summer squash, sweet corn and papaya is also becoming more common. Most whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, most fruits, and many vegetables (other than the ones above) are non-GMO, so enjoy more of these!
5. Look for pasture raised/organic meat. Most animals are grown on GM feed so check the label or buy your meat locally from the farmer’s market and ask about how the animals are raised. Choose wild caught rather than farm-raised seafood.
Bottom Line: Do I encourage patients to avoid genetically modified foods? Not exactly, but I do encourage them to eat less processed foods which happens to be where you find a lot of GMOs. If you are interested in even more information, check out the helpful resources from EWG and WHO for more information.