You Are What You Eat: GMO Health Risks and How to Avoid Them
Almost 75% of processed food on the shelves of your grocery store has ingredients that have been genetically modified.
You may have heard the term GMO on the news or noticed it on your food labels. GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, are scientifically altered foods that we eat each day.
Although nonprofit movements are educating the public on GMOs, there are still many risks that consumers don't know about.
Let's explore everything you need to know about GMO health risks to make informed decisions next time you're at the store.
What Are GMOs Used For?
In the 1990s, human beings reached a new level of impacting nature. Scientists started extracting and splicing DNA from one animal or plant into another. This created the first genetically modified organisms.
In part, GMOs supplement the food industry's need to pick, pack, and ship produce long distances before it hits your plate. It also helps to meet the growing demand for food in places of drought or instability
Another reason that food is genetically modified is for resistance to insects and viruses.
Up to 92% of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified to be pest-resistant or tolerate herbicides. The GMO corn produces toxins that kill harmful pests, but is not harmful to the humans or animals who ingest the corn.
Genetically engineering corn crops enables farmers to spray fewer pesticides. This is good for the environment and consumers.
On the flip side, it's concerning that this corn gets processed and put into drinks, food, and even fed to the animals that humans eventually eat.
Why Are GMOs Problematic?
For a few reasons, the public doesn't love the idea of eating food that's been genetically altered. To start, it interferes with the genetic composition and therefore the integrity of our food.
It's concerning that 95% of livestock raised for meat and dairy consume GMO crops. Even salmon are being genetically engineered to grow faster. This shortens the amount of time needed to raise and sell them.
The Public Is Unaware
Even if we aren't eating GMOs on purpose, they're hard to avoid. Corn, soy, and canola make up many common ingredients in processed foods. These are some of the most engineered crops.
For example, glucose and maltodextrin are sweeteners derived from corn. They're used in sports drinks, sodas, protein powders, and even baked goods.
Lecithin is derived from soy and is in a lot of dessert items. Even ingredient labels that read "natural flavoring" or "artificial flavoring" can contain GMOs. Ingredients like citric acid, alcohol, amino acids, aspartame, sucrose, are all made from GMO crops.
These crops get processed into dozens, if not hundreds, of additives that we see in everyday foods. Many consumers might not consider these foods processed, like tortillas, ketchup, or crackers.
There is no unified labeling for GMOs. This means that millions of consumers are putting their health at risk
19 out of 27 EU member countries have either banned or regulated GMOs. In the United States, environmental advocacy organizations are pushing for label transparency. These organizations face big seed companies and politicians who put profit above people.
GMOs Cause Imbalances in the Ecosystem
The Bt Corn Controversy is a well-known crop that was the focus of many studies in the early history of GMOs. The issue lies not in the corn itself, but in its pollen and seeds. They have insecticide that reduces the amount of spraying needed on crops.
A study in 1999 showed that when monarch butterflies ate milkweed (a tasty food for monarchs) with Bt Corn pollen on it, their larvae died. When fed normal milkweed from non-GMO corn, the larvae were fine.
Butterflies and other insects are important for pollinating crops and flowers. They help keep the food supply ready for consumption.
Multiple studies refuted the validity of this claim, but it's clear that genetically altering seeds is negatively affecting the environment. This GMO pollen spreads through the air and affects other crops and ecosystems that might not ordinarily have GMOs.
There is growing concern that pests and weeds will become resistant to the toxins created through genetic engineering and emerge to create more damage to crops.
What Are Economic Consequences of GMOs?
Small farmers who have biodiverse crops and aspire for organic certification can be banned from exporting to countries with GMO bans because their crops could be contaminated.
This severely impacts the culture of small business farming and dissuaded farmers from seeking certifications that could increase sales.
While many farmers, especially those in developing countries, benefit from raising GMO crops because of their lower costs and higher yields, there is also the issue of ownership.
If farmers purchase GMO seeds, they have to sign contracts and pay high fees. They even have to adhere to strict guidelines on how to grow the crop and come back year after year to purchase seeds, even if they could just harvest the next crop's seeds from last year's.
Since these seed companies have patents for the seeds, research conducted on the health and safety of the GMO crop must be approved by them. This means that although some of these seeds have been on the market for decades, we still may never know their true consequences for health and environmental safety.
This also means that any research that does come out on GMOs is approved by the seed company and likely in favor of GMOs.
What Are GMO Health Risks?
Now that you know a bit more about what GMOs are and the controversy around them, it's important to know why they could be harmful to human health.
Studies have been performed to understand how GMOs impact human life. Although it's difficult to have GMO proven health risks in animal trials, it's clear that GMO foods health risks are possible for humans.
Unlabeled GMOs pose a huge risk for consumers with severe allergies. Because there are so many ingredients made from GMO corn, allergen contamination is very concerning.
The combination of severe allergies to dairy, fish, shellfish, or nuts and the lack of labeling of GMO products creates a life-threatening situation for many people.
They Might Suppress Immune Systems
A study performed in 1999 showed that rats who were fed genetically engineered potatoes had reduced organ development and immune function.
This also calls into question the nutritional content of genetically modified organisms as compared to their natural ancestors, but many scientists claim that there is no difference.
Many genetically engineered (GE) foods contain antibiotics that tell scientists whether the new gene has been accepted into the host. There is some concern that these antibiotics could climb the food chain and end up on our plates.
As concern grows generally around the treatment of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, adding this level from GMOs is especially scary because U.S. consumers don't know if their foods are GE or not.
We've already seen that antibiotic-resistant infections are life-threatening and could be cause for further complications in the next few decades. It's important that wherever possible, antibiotics are removed from the food chain.
Risk of Unapproved Consumption
In 2000, StarLink Corn, a GMO corn not approved for human consumption because of potential digestion issues, was found in the food supply. The corn was found in 300 food products, and farmers had huge losses that were later refunded in a class-action lawsuit
It's extraordinarily difficult to separate edible crops from non-edible crops. StarLink has since been pulled from the market and extensive testing has been done on the similar crops that are still consumed by humans.
Bovine growth hormones are so common now that when you visit the grocery store and buy a dairy product, it might say "from cows not treated with rBST". This is usually followed by, "the FDA has said no significant difference has been shown and no test can distinguish between milk from rBST treated and untreated cows".
However, the concern is with a hormone called IGF-1, which is also prevalent in cows treated with rBST. When found in the blood, this hormone might cause some cells to grow faster. Those cells are like the ones that accelerate prostate, breast, and colorectal cancers.
The American Cancer Society concludes that while other studies may have proven this to be incorrect, more research must ensure that the consumption of genetically engineered dairy products is not increasing cancer risk.
While TACS doesn't recognize rBST formally as a contributing factor to cancer cell growth, they do acknowledge that it can promote antibiotic resistance.
What Can I Do?
If you'd like to avoid genetically modified foods, you're not alone. Many people don't like the idea of big industrial farmers playing God and tampering with nature's course.
Many people abstain from eating genetically modified foods for religious reasons. If you don't eat meat, for example, you won't be able to eat products that have had fish spliced in or eggs that have been fed GMO feed.
While other countries have regulations in place to let the public know about GMOs, the United States does not. The Non-GMO Project has a label you might recognize, but product developers have to reach out to get certified. If you eat processed foods, look for their label to verify that the additives or corn/soy derivatives do not contain GMOs.
Eating organic can be a great way to avoid genetically modified foods, but be sure that your label reads "100% organic" or has the USDA Organic seal. It is illegal for certified organic foods to have genetically modified ingredients, growth hormones, pesticides, or antibiotics.
Otherwise, your food can still contain GMOs.
Advocate for Transparency
Let your representatives know that GMO labeling matters to you by getting in contact with them. Write letters, share facts on social media, or start a local campaign with your farmers.
Next time important legislation comes up in Congress, your representatives will know how you feel. When someone in your district is up for election, do research to know where they stand on GMOs in your community.
This way, you can have a direct impact on who serves your interests and know whether they demand transparent GMO labeling or not.
Avoid GMOs by purchasing from your local farm or a farmers' market, or through a CSA program. Most GMOs come from big industrial farms. It's likely that your local farmers are using organic or unmodified seeds.
Strike up a conversation with your local farmers next time you're at the market. Many farmers have strong opinions on GMOs. It's always good to know how your local economy and farming community feels about GMOs.
Eat a Whole Foods Diet
Since many GMOs like corn and soy get processed to create other ingredients that end up in everyday foods, try to stick to a plant-based diet.
You'll find many unique and fun ways to make new recipes. Try to make your own granola bars, drinks, meals, and snacks that don't have any added harmful ingredients.
As an added bonus, eating less processed foods can help you eat your way to better skin.
GMO or No?
Many people claim that the war against GMOs isn't valid. These people argue that the use of GMOs reduces malnutrition and pesticide use, and promotes the economy.
While some of these claims aren't outrageous, it's important to decide on your own. The food industry doesn't communicate what exactly is in the food on your plate or what's in your infant's bottle.
The GMO health risks that we know of are scary. Although we need more research that isn't backed by seed companies, it's good to know what's going on. Check your food labels and make decisions for your family that you feel comfortable with.
Check out the rest of our blog for more information on how to live an active, healthy lifestyle and learn more about topics like this.