What is A GMO? Why You Need To Know
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are ubiquitous in our food supply. You may not even know you’re eating these toxic foods because laws that require manufactures to label GMO or non-GMO products have not gone into effect.
The health impact of eating GMOs is not fully understood, since they were introduced in the United States more than 25 years ago.1 Nearly 80% to 90% of commercial crops such as corn and soy are being genetically modified.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and The Department of Agriculture maintains that GMOs are not harmful. However, in the nine years after GMOs were introduced, there was a near 100% increase in incidences of people with three or more chronic diseases.
Luckily, there are ways to avoid these potentially problematic foods and I will tell you how later. First, let me explain exactly what GMOs are and why you should avoid them.
What is a GMO?
A GMO is an organism that has had its DNA modified or altered through genetic engineering, typically with DNA from another organism such as a plant, virus, or animal. For example, genes from a spider that help it produce silk could be inserted into the DNA of a goat. The milk from the goat whose DNA has been modified is harvested and the silk protein is isolated and used to make stronger silk material.
Though there are only a few GMO crops that are widely available, they are commodity crops that often get further processed into a variety of ingredients. These high-risk ingredients are typically present in packaged products such as:
- Amino acids
- Ascorbic acid
- Sodium ascorbate
- Citric acid
- Sodium citrate
- Flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”)
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Lactic acid
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
- Xanthan gum
- Yeast products
Why You Should Avoid GMOs
Pesticides and herbicides are by their very nature toxic, and unfortunately your diet can chronically expose you to these dangerous poisons. The National Research Council claims that in children especially, dietary intake of pesticides accounts for most of their pesticide exposure. Here are three reasons why you should avoid GMOs.
1. GMOs Increase Herbicide Use
GMO crops were developed to allow farmers to use more herbicides without killing the crops themselves. This is problematic because continuous exposure to toxins, including pesticides, is one of the key environmental triggers for developing an autoimmune disease. Maintaining a high toxic burden can cause your existing autoimmune condition to progress.
The use of herbicides was one of the primary selling points of the use of genetically modified organisms.2 This is a double-edged sword, however, as chemical- and pest-resistant weeds infest farmers’ fields. In an effort to control the superweeds that have sprung up, farmers use more and more herbicides to kill them.3 These dangerous chemicals are used in higher and higher amounts as an answer to increased resistance. They eventually making their way into your body via the food you eat.
In 1987, the Monsanto Company was one of four groups to introduce genetically modified crops. The company’s infamous GMO seeds were developed to be “Roundup® ready”, meaning they can withstand the active herbicide in Roundup®, glyphosate. As a result, glyphosate use has increased 16-fold since the Roundup® ready seeds were introduced in the 1990s. This statistic should worry all of us because the World Health Organization released a report4 stating that glyphosate likely causes cancer in humans. In fact, earlier this year a California jury awarded one couple millions of dollars in damages on the grounds that exposure to Roundup® caused their cancers. It was the third case in that state alone.
2. The Impact of GMOs is Poorly Understood
There are no regulatory requirements that guarantee the safety of GMOs, or requirements for research. The research is left up to the manufacturer.
There is significant evidence surfacing that suggest GMO foods promote disease. A study published in 2012 showed that rats on a diet of GMO corn suffered increased tumor growth and early mortality when compared to a control group.5 Similar studies on GMO animal feed prompted the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) to publicly denounce GMOs in the food supply, warning that “it is biologically plausible for Genetically Modified Foods to cause adverse health effects in humans.” GMOs are correlated with a long list of health problems, including thyroid cancer, kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and infertility.6
GMO crops are genetically altered to make them weather- and pest-resistant. Corn has been engineered to produce a natural insecticide called Bt-toxin, which kills insects by destroying the cell walls of their digestive tract. This potent chemical can’t be washed off–it’s part of the genetic makeup of GMO corn. Bt-toxin is not specific to insects and has been shown to poke holes in human cells,7 damaging the intestines and causing leaky gut.
3. GMOs Cross-Contaminate Non-GMO Crops
Perhaps the biggest reason to avoid GMOs is that if we continue to grow them, it’s possible we won’t be left with any crops that haven’t been genetically engineered. Farmers can’t protect non-GMO crops against cross-pollination by wind and insects, and the resulting seed will be a hybrid of their non-GMO crop with the GMO crop.
As I mentioned earlier, corn is one of the most commonly genetically engineered foods, with about 90% of it being GMO. Due to cross-pollination, that remaining 10% is not guaranteed to be GMO-free. Because we don’t understand the impact of consuming GMOs, it’s clear that we need to understand the gravity of this situation before we are left without other options.
The Most Common GMO Crops
GMOs can be in anything from our beauty products to our food. Here’s a list of the most common foods you’re likely to find GMOs:
- Corn (including high fructose corn syrup, corn oil, corn syrup)
- Sugar Beets (most sugar is made from this)
- Canola (as in canola oil)
- Cotton (including cottonseed oil)
- Zucchini and yellow squash
Products made from these foods, including oils, all contain traces of GMOs.8
Carbonated soft drinks are made from high fructose corn syrup and sugar beets. Milk and meat products are likely to have GMOs if farm animals are fed genetically modified soy products. Even baby formula could contain GMO corn, sugar beets and soy.
5 Ways to Avoid GMOs
You might be asking yourself if GMOs are practically in everything, how do you avoid them? Here are five ways you can avoid GMOs:
1. Buy Organic
I’ve always advocated for eating an organic diet as much as possible. Foods labeled 100% USDA organic cannot lawfully contain GMOs. Buying 100% organic ensures not only that your food is non-GMO, but that it is free from dangerous pesticides, hormones, and other chemicals.9 Look for labels that say “100% Organic” or “USDA Organic.” Assume that anything labeled “Made With Organic” contains some organic ingredients, and the rest could be GMOs.
2. Buy Grass-Fed Meat
You know that saying, “you are what you eat?” Pay attention to what your food eats as it may contain genetically modified organisms. This is extremely important because the diet of the animals you eat affects you as well. If they ate a diet of GMO feed, it will end up in your body regardless of whether or not the animal was itself genetically engineered.
GMO crops are cheaper and more readily available, therefore they are the first choice for animal feed in the United States. That means your animal products, such as chicken and beef, could be cross-contaminated through the food they eat. Unless it’s labeled as certified grass-fed and organic, animals are almost certainly fed a diet of GMO grains. The same applies to the food you buy at a farmers’ market or grocery stores like Whole Foods. Stick with pasture-raised, organic meats, and always ask if the animal was fed GMO.
3. Buy Non-GMO Project Verified
The Non-GMO Project is an independent organization that verifies foods that do not contain any genetically engineered ingredients. They are the only such organization in the U.S. and Canada.
Food manufacturers are adept at using food labeling to their advantage. A pint of ice cream, for example, may prominently state on the label that they “source non-GMO ingredients,” yet in fact, their dairy cows eat GMO feed. The Non-GMO Project cannot verify the ice cream because of that fact. Look for foods with their seal on the label.
4. Use Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide
Organic food can be expensive, however there are ways to shop smart in order to avoid GMOs. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts out a yearly guide outlining which foods are most commonly GMO, and which foods are a safer bet. Buy all organic if you can. If that’s not feasible, at the very least buy organic when it comes to the most common GMO foods included in their list.
5. Support the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT)
Few states have laws in place requiring that GMO ingredients be clearly labeled, but the non-GMO movement gains momentum daily, thanks in large part to organizations like the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT). They have made it their mission to research the effects of GMOs and educate the public and the government.
The United States government passed a law in 2016 that requires food makers to label their food as GMO or non-GMO foods. However, food manufacturers do not need to change labels until 2022. At that point, foods with a GMO label should be avoided. Until that happens, you can rely on the Non-GMO Project Verified to find what foods it verifies as non-GMO. It also keeps a list of grocery stores that sell non-GMO foods.
As a functional medicine physician, I strongly encourage you to keep toxins out of your body, including genetically modified food that could cause autoimmunity or make your autoimmunity worse. My advice is to stay informed and ask questions when it comes to your food. You have the right and deserve to know exactly what you are putting into your body.
- Doctors Warn: Avoid Genetically Modified Food. Jeffrey M. Smith. Responsible Technology. 2009.
- GMOs and Pesticides: Helpful or Harmful?. Jennifer Hsaio. Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. 2015.
- Glyphosate-resistant weed problem extends to more species, more farms. Farm Industry News. 2013.
- IARC Monographs Volume 112: evaluation of five organophosphate insecticides and herbicides. World Health Organization. 2015.
- Republished study: long-term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerantgenetically modified maize. Gilles-Eric Séralini. Environmental Sciences Europe. 2014.
- 5Human Health Effects of Genetically Engineered Crops. NCBI. 2020.
- Cytotoxicity on human cells of Cry1Ab and Cry1Ac Bt insecticidal toxins alone or with a glyphosate-based herbicide. National Library of Medicine. 2012.
- Genetically modified foods: Helpful or harmful?. Piedmont Healthcare. 2017.
- What is a Bioengineered Food?. U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2021.
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