How genetically modified foods fit into a healthful diet
By Molly Knudsen, RDN
Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by GMOs?
In the food world, GMOs (aka genetically modified organisms) are often depicted as the Mean Girls character Regina George. Claims appear on websites, blogs, social media, and news stations that link GMOs to cancer, antibiotic-resistance, and allergies.
But what if these harmful claims, much like the rumors spread through Regina George’s infamous burn book, connected with GMOs are just gossip?
Well, according to science these allegations do not hold true, and research shows GMO foods are safe and nutritious to eat.
People’s distrust of GMOs may stem from confusion about what “GMO” actually means. Hearing the words genetically, modified, and food in the same sentence seems to elicit the picture of a mad scientist injecting an apple with a giant syringe (or whatever food pops in your mind). But, that is not the case. According to registered dietitian nutritionist Neva Cochran, the genetically modified part of GMOs comes from alteration in the seed’s genes. These changes in the seed’s DNA give the plant certain characteristics, such as resistance to disease and drought that are impossible to achieve otherwise.
Foods with these types of genetic modifications have been on the market since the early 1990s. Over 75 studies have been conducted on the safety of each new seed variety with these altered genes to understand the impact on people, animals, and the environment. Only after these rigorous processes are these products, that have proven to be safe, allowed to hit the shelves of grocery stores across the United States.
But, what exactly are these GMO foods or products with GMO ingredients? Well, currently in the United States, there are only ten GMO approved crops. Yep, it’s a short list. These include corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, squash, potatoes and apples. If any of these crops are used as an ingredient in a food product, such as sugar from sugar beets to sweetened dried apricots, then that product cannot be labeled as non-GMO.
Non-GMO labeling has exploded as a food-marketing tactic to get people to think eating non-GMO foods is better for health. In 2016, Hunt’s ran a campaign saying that they do not use GMOs in any of their tomato products. But, news flash: there are no GMO tomatoes on the market at all! Not from Hunt’s, not from Heinz, and not from any of their competitors’ products. This ad campaign was a ploy to convince people that Hunt’s tomato products are more healthful because they are GMO free. “These claims are simply a marketing tool that creates fear of perfectly safe and healthy foods” says Neva.
There is almost universal agreement in the scientific community that produce grown from GMO seeds is safe to eat. In fact, the National Academies of Sciences published a 600-page report in 2016 reviewing the findings from over 1,000 scientific articles, and it concluded just that. But, many people are still skeptical. According to new survey conducted by the International Food Information Council, 47% of respondents said they avoid GMO foods at least somewhat and do so mainly because of health concerns.
Clearly, there is a disconnect between what science says and what people believe. Even though GMO crops have been on the market for almost 30 years, the real mistrust regarding these products escalated with the rise of the Internet and social media outlets.
“Once the information is out there on the Internet, it is shared on social media and in blogs and articles that further spreads the misinformation and fear. It’s hard to distinguish between what’s credible and someone’s personal opinion on a topic like GMOs,” says Neva.
Often times, people are drawn to blogs or social media profiles that offer more extreme views, especially on topics like healthful eating. People want clear direction on how to eat healthy, and platforms that characterize foods as good or bad attract many followers. In these situations, GMOs tend to fall in the bad bucket, while their organic counter parts are held up as the gold standard of health. In addition to these social media accounts casting doubt on the health and environmental safety of GMOS, moral and ethical concerns, as well as skepticism of the science, also contribute to the distrust of these foods.
But it is possible to find social media accounts that support a balanced viewpoint on all foods. The Boston based Instagram influencer Nishat Nguyen does just that. From loving doughnuts, to burgers, to fresh produce, and back to doughnuts again, enjoying food is Nishat’s number one priority. She does most of her shopping at local farmer’s markets and pays little attention to labels. Nishat also shops mainly based on price point.
When asked about GMOs, Nishat said, “I understand that some things are manipulated in ways that prevent pests or for a variety of other reasons, but I really don’t think they’re less safe than organic produce.”
Social media can be a great way to find recipe ideas and inspiration on where to eat and grocery shop. But when it comes to health and nutrition advice, be wary of accounts with preachy and extremist viewpoints.
The science and nutrition professionals say that GMOs are just as safe and nutritious to eat as organic and other conventionally grown produce. Remember that ALL fresh produce should be washed before eating to ensure safety!
When trying to make healthful decisions at the grocery store or when eating out, Neva recommends that “rather than focusing on fear-based marketing claims like non-GMO, gluten-free, no artificial preservatives or colors and no high fructose corn syrup, they should focus on selecting a variety of foods that will allow them to create an eating plan consistent with MyPlate.”
Nishat takes more of an intuitive approach to healthful eating. “Healthful to me is making sure I’m well fed for whatever lies ahead that day. Trying to be balanced is great but I always look for things that I love the taste of, too.”
It’s time to take a step back from demonizing food. Food is meant to be fuel. Food is meant to be social. Food is meant to be enjoyed.
It’s time to break-up with food cliques of organic, clean, or natural and realize that all foods can coexist in a healthful diet.
It’s time to realize that GMOs are not the Regina George of the food world.
Molly Knudsen is a master’s student in Tufts University’s nutrition communication program. She is a RDN and 2017 graduate of the Texas Christian University dietetics program.