Dangers of Genetically Modified Foods | Robert A. Erickson, M.D.

What Are GMOs?

Genetic modification of food involves the laboratory process of artificially inserting genes into the DNA of food crops or animals. The result is called a genetically modified organism or GMO. GMOs can be engineered with genes from bacteria, viruses, animals, insects or even humans. Unlike most industrialized countries, the US does not require labeling identifying GMO foods. It is estimated that in the US 70% of the foods sold in supermarkets contain GMO ingredients and close to 90% of corn and soy products are genetically modified. Many European countries have recognized this danger and have rejected GMO foods.

How Did This Problem Start?

Scientists began to look for ways to improve the protein yield of certain plant crops and also take advantage of how plants naturally protect themselves from viruses, bacteria, fungi and insects – that is, by producing their own pesticides and fungicides. All plants make these protective chemicals and their production is controlled by genes. By manipulating these genes, scientists cause plants to produce these chemicals at much higher concentrations and for longer periods than normal. Unfortunately, these chemicals can adversely affect human and animal health. In high concentrations they can even promote the development of cancer.

Doesn’t Our Government Require A Certain Safety Standard?

Just like with pharmaceuticals, GMO foods require only a very short-term safety analysis. The negative effects of eating GMO foods can take years, or even several generations to fully detect the harmful effects. In animal studies, food companies may use just a few animals and omit testing on embryos (how else are they going to determine if it is safe for pregnant women to eat these foods?). I am unaware of large scale post-marketing studies in humans proving safety, especially in children and pregnant women.

In 2009 a detailed report on 3 specific GMO corn strains was published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences. The full report is available on-line but basically talks about harmful effects to kidney, liver, spleen, adrenal glands, and heart. Another study by Russian biologist Alexey Surov found a higher mortality rate in the offspring of hamsters feed GMO soy and that by the 3rd generation, the hamsters became sterile.

Tips for Avoiding GMO Foods

My personal medical opinion is that the burden of proof of safety needs to be on the food companies selling GMO foods and until long term studies are available, I would take a conservative approach and avoid them altogether.

1. Buy Organic. Certified organic products are not allowed to contain any GMOs. Products labeled as “made with organic ingredients” are required to contain at least 70% organic ingredients, but 100% of the ingredients must be non-GMO.
2. Look for “Non GMO” labels. Companies may voluntarily label their products as non-GMO.
3. Avoid at-risk ingredients. Most GMO ingredients are made from the following 4 crops: corn, soybeans, canola, and cottonseed. All of these products are used in processed foods. So for instance, products containing high fructose corn syrup may have been made from GMO corn. Products containing “vegetable oil” may have been made from soy. Even vitamin products, such as vitamin E, may contain GMO products.
4. Most fresh fruits and fresh vegetables in the U.S. are not genetically modified, although small amounts of sweet corn, crookneck squash and zucchini may be GM. Fruit juices that are 100% juice should be fine, but many juices contain high-fructose corn syrup and are a cause for concern.
5. No genetically modified fish, poultry, or livestock is yet approved for human consumption. But animal feeds may contain GM grains, so foods such as yogurt, cheeses or ice cream that are produced from animal products can be affected. My advice is to look for wild rather than farmed fish and 100% grass-fed animals if you are not vegetarian. Buy organic eggs and dairy products.
6. Other than corn, no GM grains are sold in the U.S. There is no GM blue or white corn, and there is no GM popcorn. Grains such as barley, wheat, oats, rice, dried beans, couscous, and quinoa should be fine. Also products such as pasta or snack foods made from these grains should be fine. Cereals and snack/breakfast bars often contain GMO ingredients because they contain either soy or corn products. The same goes for bakery items that are not organic.
7. Baby foods and infant formulas can be a source of GMO products as the basis of these products is soy or milk. Many of these products also contain corn syrup or soy lethicin. Again, I suggest parents purchase certified organic baby foods and formulas.

For a more comprehensive good guide log on to the Center for Food Safety Website at www.centerforfoodsafety.org . This organization works to protect human health and the environment by curbing the proliferation of harmful food production technologies and by promoting organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture. CFS has offices in Washington, DC and San Francisco, CA.