Also known as transgenic and bioengineered foods, genetically modified foods (GMO foods) have always been controversial and continue to be.
GMO foods have an extensive history and are widely used, but consumers do not always have sufficient knowledge, causing alarm surrounding their health and safety impacts. GMO foods go through a deliberate change in their genetic material to introduce traits that do not naturally occur in that food.
Genes from one organism are placed into another organism, hence why they are “bioengineered”. Genetic modification is carried out for various reasons, such as to accommodate demand due to population growth, enhance desirable crop features, make them more pest-resistant, and improve nutritional value.
Manipulating the genetic material of crops is not new, with records dating back 10,000 years in Southwest Asia. Grafting, and selective breeding methods were used to rear produce with specific traits and were deemed desirable for both agricultural success and consumer expectations.
For example, “golden rice, ” one of the earlier GMO foods, consists of modified rice with high levels of beta-carotene, the substance that gives the rice a yellow or golden appearance, hence its name.
Here are some of the most common myths about GM foods:
MYTH: Non-GMO is better and healthier because it is not genetically modified.
FACT: There’s scientific consensus that GMO foods are as healthy as non-GMO foods. Sometimes they’re even healthier and safer to eat. Also, non-GMO foods are not legally GMO-free.
Having a non-GMO label means that a product contains less than 1% genetically modified ingredients. The truth about non-GMO labels is that often, companies use the non-GMO label on foods that were never developed with biotechnology. Tomatoes are one such example – there are no GMO tomatoes!
If you come across “non-GMO tomatoes” in the supermarket, you could be paying a premium price for a meaningless label.
MYTH: All lab meat are GMO foods.
FACT: Cell-cultured meat created in a lab do use bioengineering techniques similar to GMO foods. But cell-cultured meat uses cell tissue engineering.
Animal-free meat uses unmodified cells from a specific animal – for example, cows – and creates a lab environment that can support the growth of these cells in a lab.
This technology has the potential to support increased demand in a humane manner while reducing airborne diseases and the environmental impact of animal farming.
MYTH: Livestock that eats GMO grain will produce GMO dairy, meat and eggs.
FACT: GMOs have never been detected in milk, meat or eggs derived from animals that feed on GMO crops.
An estimate of over 70% of harvested GMO crops are fed to food-producing animals, making the world’s livestock populations the largest consumers of the current generation of GMO crops. Almost all the food that we (or animals) eat contains DNA and proteins.
Regardless of source, DNA and protein are similarly processed by the digestive system in our gastrointestinal tract.
MYTH: GMO foods cause more allergies.
FACT: Food allergies are often caused by proteins in foods.
When genetic material is introduced to the crop, new proteins may form and be interpreted as a foreign threat in the body, initiating an immune response or allergic reaction. Furthermore, a 2017 study found that GMO foods were either not allergenic or no more allergenic than non-GMO foods.
MYTH: Disease-resistant crops can weaken our ability to defend against illnesses.
FACT: Not exactly. Globally, there is growing concern that people are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
Some are concerned that GMO foods might be contributing to this crisis. Genetic modification aims to boost a crop’s resistance to disease or make it more tolerant to herbicides, but genes in the food might transfer to the gut and could affect the ability of people to defend against illness.
The World Health Organization has said that the risk of gene transfer is low but they have set guidelines for the manufacturers of GMO foods as precaution.
Still not convinced?
It is not easy to know whether foods contain GMO ingredients. Any number of common foods may be genetically modified, or they become ingredients in other foods.
Corn, soybeans, potatoes, apples and papayas are examples of common GM foods.
Foods that use GM ingredients include:
- corn starch in soups and sauces
- corn syrup used as a sweetener
- corn, canola and soybean oils in mayonnaise, dressings, and breads
- sugar derived from sugar beets.
It may be impossible to avoid GMO foods completely and will require a lot of commitment to not buy processed foods and only consume produce from sources that you are familiar with. But if you want to avoid certain essential food products with GMO ingredients, pay closer attention to the labels.
A GMO food should be labelled as such if it is “materially different” to its conventional counterpart. For example:
- a GMO soybean oil with a high level of stearidonic acid, which does not naturally occur in the oil, must be labelled “stearidonate soybean oil”
- a GMO soybean oil with more oleic acid than non-GMO soybean oil must be labelled “high-oleic soybean oil”
- a GMO canola oil with more lauric acid than traditional canola oil will be labelled “laurate canola oil”
GM foods have been surrounded by controversy, but they have proven beneficial to the food supply and demand chain. These foods have been around for longer than we think and appear safe for human consumption. However, more studies are needed to understand their overall nutritional value and long-term health impacts.
By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar
Published in Star Newspaper, 28 Jun 2021