What You Should Know About GMOs
The debate over GMOs is fierce.
If you’re like Michelle Mollica, diagnosed with celiac disease seven years ago, label reading, product research and ingredient deciphering are just a normal part of life. But this wasn’t always the case for Mollica, a mom of three from Maryland.
“In the past, my purchases were based on convenience,” she says. Then a family illness, a new baby and her celiac diagnosis forced her to become hyper-aware of what goes into her body. In addition to buying food that’s gluten-free, she now opts for organic and non-GMO.
Genetically modified organism (GMO) is a term used to describe plants or animals altered via genetic engineering to achieve a certain beneficial trait. Examples include fish genes injected into strawberries to protect the fruit from freezing and dairy cows injected with the genetically engineered hormone rBGH (also known as rBST) to increase milk production. Virtually all plant GMOs are genetically engineered to withstand direct application of herbicides like glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup.
Food modification is not a recent development. Many of today’s fruits, vegetables and grains bear little resemblance to their ancient ancestors. However, most of these changes came about through traditional plant breeding.
Chances are your pantry has more than a few GMO-containing foods. Up to 80 percent of processed foods contain ingredients derived from genetically modified crops—namely, corn, soy, canola and sugar beets.
In recent years, concern has been raised about the environmental effects associated with GMOs, such as Roundup-resistant “super weeds” that require farmers to use ever-increasing dousings of the herbicide. There’s also worry about the potential health impact on humans, such as digestive, immune and reproductive disorders. Concerning evidence of health risks has been revealed in animal studies.
According to Gerard Mullin, MD, director of Integrative Gastrointestinal Nutrition Services at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the health risks are still theoretical in humans. There is, however, a potential for harm from the downstream effects of herbicides sprayed on GMO crops.
“Residues of herbicides like glyphosate may be carried over and ingested by humans,” Mullin says. “The World Health Organization recently called glyphosate a probable carcinogen.”
Many food manufacturers and some in the scientific community argue that GMOs make food production more economical, requiring less water, for example, and that they’re safe. A 2016 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found no substantial evidence of a difference in risks to human health between conventionally bred and GMO crops. However, the Academy noted the inherent difficulty in detecting subtle and long-term effects on health (and the environment).
GMOs & Your Health
The topic of GMOs is particularly important to the gluten-free population, who often rely on corn and soy as dietary staples.
“Corn and soy are two of the most common GMO foods in the United States,” says Amy Burkhart, MD, RD, an integrative medicine and celiac specialist in Northern California.
Many GMO items are added ingredients in processed gluten-free foods, such as canola oil and soy lecithin. And dairy products, eggs and meat, unless organic, may indirectly contain GMOs through animals fed GMO corn and soy feed.
It’s possible—but not proven—that GMOs could impact our gut bacteria and diversity, collectively known as the microbiome. The gut’s immune system is controlled by genes within the biome that, in turn, control inflammation and immune and autoimmune function, says Mullin, who is author of The Gut Balance Revolution. He advocates that people take steps to care for their microbiome, especially those with chronic diseases of the digestive system and autoimmune conditions. He recommends avoiding GMOs whenever possible.
Burkhart would like to see more research about GMO safety. “We don’t really know the risks of GMOs to the celiac and gluten-free community,” she says. She supports limiting or avoiding GMO foods in your diet.
But other celiac specialists feel differently.
“Some patients have expressed concern about GMO safety—but what is lacking is proof,” says Benjamin Lebwohl, MD, MS, a gastroenterologist at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. “Without convincing evidence linking GMOs as a technology to any adverse health condition, I see no reason to advise patients with celiac disease to be on the lookout for GMOs.”
In July 2016, Vermont became the first state to require GMO labeling. According to the Center for Food Safety, more than 70 bills have been introduced in over 30 other states to require GMO labeling or the prohibition of genetically engineered foods. There’s no nationwide requirement to disclose GMOs on food labels. Food manufacturers can add a non-GMO claim to a product label provided it’s “truthful and not misleading,” according to the FDA.
The situation is very different outside of the United States. Globally, some 64 countries now require labeling or regulation of GMOs—or they ban their use altogether.
“It says a lot that so much of the world recognizes this as a threat,” says Mary Jo Fishburn, MD, an integrative and functional medicine physician in Towson, Maryland.
If you want to avoid GMOs, seek out food that’s certified organic or certified non-GMO by The Non-GMO Project, the only independent group in North America that’s testing, certifying and labeling non-GMO products.
With the enactment of Vermont’s labeling law, Michelle Mollica is hoping that change is coming to GMO food labeling across the nation.
“I choose to avoid GMOs,” she says. “That’s not everyone’s choice—but everyone has the right to know what’s in their food.”
Buying Organic on a Budget
The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products. But buying organic (and gluten-free) can burn a hole in your pocket.
To save money, Heather Cucuzella, diagnosed with celiac disease seven years ago, is savvy about her organic purchases. She seeks out organic produce in season, when it’s more plentiful and less expensive. She checks out local farmer’s markets and she follows the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list. Produce on this list tests higher in pesticide levels than other produce, helping her avoid the biggest offenders.
The Dirty Dozen: Apples, Peaches, Nectarines, Strawberries, Grapes, Celery, Spinach, Sweet Bell Peppers, Cucumbers, Cherry Tomatoes, Snap Peas, Potatoes, Hot Peppers, Kale.
The Clean Fifteen (test lowest in pesticides): Avocado, Sweet Corn, Pineapples, Cabbage, Frozen Sweet Peas, Onion, Asparagus, Mango, Papaya, Kiwi, Eggplant, Grapefruit, Cantaloupe, Cauliflower, Sweet