Genetically Modified Foods (GM or GMO): What They Are and Why We Care

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Genetic modification involves taking a gene from one organism, clipping it out of that organism’s genome (splicing it) and then inserting it into the genome of a different organism.

There’s a lot of debate about whether or not that’s a good idea.

Foods that are most commonly GM (Genetically Modified) include soybeans (94% of the soybeans in the US are GM), corn (88% in the US), cotton, canola (which is made from rapeseed), and alfalfa.  These foods are primarily engineered to be herbicide- and insect-resistant, so that they do not need as much pesticide applied to them as non-GM crops, and are resistant to herbicides.

Here’s the catch: there are no long-term human studies to determine safety of these crops, nor are there currently any being done.  This is because the FDA considers them to be essentially equivalent to their non-GM counterparts.  For that reason, GM foods are not required to be labeled.  Most likely, you consume them daily without realizing it, especially if you eat a lot of processed food products.

Despite the official consensus that GM foods are safe for consumption, though, there is cause for caution.

For the most part, GM foods contain a gene from an organism called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, which, when expressed, produces a toxin called glyphosate.  This is the active ingredient in the insecticide called Roundup, which kills insects by poking holes in the gut lining.  According to the EPA, glyphosate is toxic to insects only and has no effect on humans or animals.  However, some data links glyphosate with birth defects, miscarriages, infertility, behavioral disorders, and even autism.

Even more compelling to me as a naturopathic doctor is the fact that since the 1996 introduction of GM corn and soy into the US, inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders have been on the rise.  Admittedly this is only a correlation, and may not be causative.  However, I can verify in my practice that intestinal permeability, or so-called “leaky gut” syndrome, is strangely prevalent.  (I make this diagnosis when according to blood food sensitivity tests, patients develop IgG reactions to more than twenty different foods.)  I can also verify the connection between the gut and overall health.

More cause for concern: glyphosate is a chelator, which means it binds to positively charged elements and compounds (such as trace minerals and nutrients) and doesn’t let go.  Plants treated with glyphosate may therefore be deficient nutrients, and the evidence suggests they are primarily low in manganese, zinc, and iron.  Although there are studies on both sides of the fence on this issue, it stands to reason that if true, animals eating nutrient deficient plants will then develop nutrient deficiencies themselves.  At any rate, it is certainly the case that free-range poultry and grass fed meat are substantially higher in essential fatty acids (EFAs) than their agro industry counterparts, and I wonder now whether these issues are related.

So, the conclusion – although the official position is that GM foods are safe, we don’t know their long-term effects, and there’s evidence that they may be harmful.  I can attest to the fact that a cleaner diet nearly always dramatically improves my patients’ health, although whether this is due to higher quality foods in general or the removal of GM foods specifically, I cannot say.

But in general, my rule is that if the jury’s out on safety, avoid it.  

How you avoid GMO foods: 

  • Choose organic soy and corn products, OR those that specifically say “non-GMO Project Verified” on the package.
  • Avoid canola oil (from rapeseed) and cottonseed oil altogether.  These aren’t healthy for you anyway, so that’s not a big loss.
  • Avoid aspartame (derived from a GMO).  This is also bad for you anyway.

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