Should GMO Labeling Be Required For All Food Ingredients?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Environment and Health, Food and Health, Issues

When Is GMO Not GMO?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

GMO-freeI’m probably going to get lots of hate mail for this week’s “Health Tips from the Professor” because I’m finally going to tackle the GMO controversy.

You see, the GMO controversy is very much like Washington politics. On one side of the aisle, you have the people who are absolutely convinced that anything GMO is terrible. On the other side of the aisle, you have people who are absolutely convinced that there are no problems with GMO foods. And both sides are convinced that their opponents have absolutely nothing of intelligence to say on the topic.

So almost anything I say about GMO is bound to offend somebody. But nobody ever accused me of being timid, so let’s get started.

What Are The Health Risks Of Genetically Modified Foods?

I’m going to start with the supposed health risks of GMO foods because that’s my area of greatest expertise, and I’m going to evaluate those health risks from the viewpoint of a card-carrying biochemist. I’ve seen the scary pictures and alarming statements posted on many anti-GMO web sites, but objective evidence that genetically modified foods are harmful to humans is underwhelming at present.

Modifications to DNA And Health Risks

Let’s start at the beginning. Genetic modification occurs in the DNA, and on that basis GMO foods have some potential, but yet unproven, risks. Let me give you an example:

  • Some genetically modified foods carry genes for naturally occurring pesticides so that if bugs try to eat the leaves of those plants they will die.
  • When we eat foods occasionally small pieces of their DNA will find their way into our intestinal track.
  • We have bacteria in our intestinal tracts that excel at picking up small pieces of DNA and inserting them into their genome.
  • So it is theoretically possible that those bacteria might start producing in our intestines the same pesticides produced by the genetically modified foods we ate.

It is an interesting idea, but to my knowledge one that has not yet been shown to have actually occurred in a human being.

Modifications to Proteins And Health Risks

A more likely risk comes from the proteins contained in genetically modified foods:

  • Genetic modifications in the DNA result in the production of modified proteins, so GMO foods, GMO protein powders and foods made from GMO protein sources can be a source of unsuspected food allergies.
  • Unfortunately, food allergies, especially those from genetically modified protein sources, are very difficult to quantify, so we have no good data on how big a problem this actually is.

However, it would be very surprising if there weren’t some individuals with food allergies to genetically modified proteins.

When Is GMO Not GMO?

Many of the GMO opponents take it one step further and want to label as GMO any food or supplement that contains any ingredient made from a genetically modified food. This is where the science is clearly on the other side of the aisle. With respect to purified sugars, purified oils, vitamins and other purified nutrients obtained from foods there is no difference between GMO and non-GMO because these purified nutrients contain neither DNA nor protein.

 Should GMO Labeling Be Required For All Food Ingredients?

For the most part, it isn’t even possible for most manufacturers to produce foods or supplements with all non-GMO ingredients. When the whole GMO issue first entered public awareness the food industry was guided by the science. It made good business sense for them to create a capacity, a pipeline if you will, to make sure that non-GMO protein sources were available to meet the market demand for companies that wanted to make non-GMO protein products for this new GMO-adverse market.

But, nobody anticipated the emotional demand for non-GMO sugars, oils and the like. There was no scientific basis for that demand, so none of the suppliers created the capacity to meet that demand. Currently there is only enough of those kinds of non-GMO ingredients to meet the needs of the bit players in the market. There simply aren’t enough of those ingredients to satisfy the requirements of any manufacturer who deals in the mass market. That, for example, is the reason big players in the market lobbied against the recent California and Washington State propositions that would have required a food product to be labeled GMO if any ingredient in the food was GMO.

Genetically Modified Foods And The Environment

Now that I have managed to alienate almost everyone, I should point out that there are some non-health issues around GMO foods.

  • The biggest issue is that many of the genetically modified foods contain modifications that make them resistant to herbicides, and that encourages overuse of those herbicides with the resultant pollution of air, soil, and water.
  • Another concern is that the increasing reliance on genetically modified food crops is leading to a decrease in the genetic diversity of those crops, which could make them more susceptible to a new virus or pest in the future. This is a theoretical concern, but there is historical precedence for believing that it could happen.
  • Finally, laws that prevent subsistent farmers from saving their own seed for next season’s planting is a major concern in Third World countries. But, that is more an issue of corporate greed than it is of genetic modification.

The Bottom Line:

What is the take-home lesson for you?

From a health perspective:

  • Genetically modified proteins are likely to be a food allergy risk for some people, but we have no good data on how many people are affected by this kind of food allergy
  • Genetically modified DNA is a theoretical concern because of the ability of intestinal bacteria to pick up pieces of DNA, but we have no evidence at present that this has actually ever caused a problem in people.
  • With respect to sugars, oils, and other nutrients extracted from foods it makes no difference whether the food was GMO or non-GMO

From an environmental perspective:

  • Genetic modifications leading to herbicide resistance are a significant environmental concern because it encourages overuse of herbicides.
  • Lack of genetic diversity from the overuse of GMO food crops is a theoretical concern, but one with historical precedence.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (10)

  • Janet Hawken

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    1. If a GMO food is offensive to bugs and pests, is there a logical deduction that it could also be offensive to digestive bacteria and thus offer inferior nutrition?
    2. Or could it be viewed as a new food to the system with the same consequences that arise when we introduce a new food, maybe too soon, to a baby’s diet?
    3. If you grow a GMO olive tree, is it possible that the resulting oil has a chemistry change (ie, smell, taste, color, consistency, bio- availability) from the original variety?

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

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      Dear Janet,
      Good points. Here are my comments:
      1) Being offensive to bugs & pests does not equate to being offensive to intestinal bacteria, so the nutritional value is probably equal. In some cases the nutritional quality is actually better because the plant has been engineered to produce more of selected nutrients. However, as I said in my article, food allergies to altered proteins are likely, and that could affect utilization of the food.
      2) That’s also a valid point with respect to whole foods because of the altered proteins – again, food allergies are the concern.
      3) In general oils are highly purified before they are added to foods so GMO is generally not a concern. However, some ‘organic” brands pride themselves on using unpurified ingredients. That would be a theoretical concern if the ingredient were on purified and contained traces of altered proteins. I suspect, however, that the protein content of something like raw, unprocessed olive oil would be so low that it would be unlikely to be a problem.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • harry

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    thank goodness for a voice of sanity in GMO … we have to realize that all plant life, in fact all life period was genetically modified .. that’s the process of evolution. nature modifies things so they survive but it takes a long time to do that.

    the genetic code is constantly changing even in your own family and in your own garden . but we have become familiar with the things we have and have learned what we can tolerate and what we cant. anything new goes against that comfort zone and becomes suspect.

    some people go overboard with worry and create illusions of horror. well that seems to be a protective mechanism that’s instinctive . maybe a good thing if its paired with sensible science .

    of course those that don’t understand the science will often suspect it .. those in such fields have learned to trust advice from those that have knowledge, but with reservations, their theories must be born out in practice …

    if they say it wont hurt you and it doesn’t then we can look at a much bigger picture. in order to feed an ever increasing world population we have to maximize and perfect how we do it while reducing waste .. its a matter of us being a little out of our comfort zone in order to prevent others from something at least more important than comfort.

    there should always be checks and balance but attacks on a science should first look to the facts and those that understand them ..

    this is a good article by such a person .. bravo .. a good combination of science and caution .. no enemies here.

    Reply

    • Sandy Abrams

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      As far as being able to feed more people, it turns out that not only do the yields get smaller, but farmers are now using a lot more pesticides than they did before planting GMO crops.

      Reply

      • Dr. Steve Chaney

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        Dear Sandy,

        I agree. The environmental impact of increased pesticide use is clearly the most concerning impact of GMO foods.

        Dr. Chaney

        Reply

  • Dave

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    Thanks for a more balanced view than we normally see.

    I am much more wary of PMO – Politically modified – foods. Think about being without eggs and avacodos. Those were once very bad boys. Now they ‘re good for us, in moderation like most things.

    Once bureaucrats take a stance, change is very hard.

    Reply

  • Sandy Abrams

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    I will still opt out of GMO foods ,to the extent possible,because as you say, the evidence against them is sketchy but that being said, the evidence for them is not that strong.

    Some may well not have a long term negative effect on animals and humans that eat them, but I would say to err on the side of safety and wait until the proponents have all their I’s dotted and T’s crossed.

    It could easily turn out that by the time they do that, the risks will be much higher than they thought, and if we take their word for the safety and eat them, it will be too late…the damage will be done.

    More and more information about the harm being done is coming out and I don’t have the scientific expertise to evaluate all of them but I have seen some reports that appear to be very reputable showing harm to butterflies and pigs.

    When it comes to what I put in my body, if it says it is good for me, it better not be bad for me too.

    I just think it is smart to say make them prove it and not make me the guinea pig.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

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      Dear Sandy,

      I totally agree when it comes to the topic of GMO foods. My point was that purified ingredients such as fats, sugar & vitamins that are isolated from GMO foods are chemically & molecularly identical to the same purified ingredients isolated from non-GMO foods. Labeling laws that require purified ingredients to be labeled GMO are not scientifically defensible.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Frank M. Painter, D.C.

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    Hi Dr. Steve!

    Because I write for a living, I usually avoid reading your materials, so that my work does not sound (or become) derivative. Since I won’t be writing about GMOs as a stand-alone concept, I enjoyed your article, although I’d like to see proof that “purified” GMO sugars, oils etc. are treated by the human body like their natural (evolutionary) counterparts.

    Synthetic nutrients supposedly *look* the same as natural analogs, but the human body absorbs less of them, and selectively excretes them more quickly.

    That leads me to *believe* that structural similarity (as science is currently capable of determining) is NOT the whole picture. JMHO.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

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      Dear Dr. Painter,

      This is a common misconception. There are sometimes differences between synthetic (chemically made) and natural nutrients. Those differences have to do with differences in orientation of chemical substituents around a carbon bond. However, GMO and non-GMO nutrients are made naturally by the same enzymatic process, so their structure and orientation is identical. There is no way for the body to distinguish between them.

      The genetic modifications involve proteins other than the ones used to make the nutrients, usually proteins involving resistance to herbicides, insects or plant diseases. Once you have purified the nutrients, all of the genetically modified DNA and proteins are removed. What is left is chemically and biologically identical from GMO and non-GMO sources.

      D. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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