Sustenance

Genetically modified foods: Helpful or harmful?

Sustenance

Genetically modified foods: Helpful or harmful?

A great deal of controversy surrounds foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Are they safe? Not safe? Should they be regulated or not regulated? Two things are certain: these foods are hitting the market at a rapid pace and they are found in many processed foods. Staying informed on what they are, how they may affect your body, and what foods contain them, is all a part of living a healthy, balanced life.

What are GMOs?

GMOs have actually been in our food supply for more than 20 years. They are made by scientists who have genetically introduced new traits or characteristics to an organism, allowing it to grow faster, look better, taste sweeter, resist herbicides, etc.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates foods and ingredients made from genetically engineered plants and animals to help ensure that they are safe to eat, some argue that the effects they have on the human body are not fully understood. 

"GMOs are not natural and could never happen naturally," says Jennifer Teems, MS, RD, LD, a clinical dietitian at Piedmont. "But it's important to remember that foods and products today are held to much higher standards than ever before in history." 

How do GMOs affect the body?

According to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), there are no human clinical trials of GMO foods, but those done with animals indicate serious health risks linked to GMOs. These include infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulations, as well as changes to major organs and the gastrointestinal system.

Another concern is that because these foods are engineered to withstand herbicides, more of the toxic substances are sprayed on the plants, which ultimately increases the trace amounts of herbicides found in foods.

"Food is so complex that it’s hard to study it and determine the ramifications of GMOs," says Teems. "I tell my patients not to fixate on avoiding GMOs, because that’s nearly impossible. Instead, concentrate on eating a heart-healthy diet that is high in fruits and veggies, and low in added sugar and processed foods.”

Which foods have GMOs?

The most common genetically modified crops in the U.S. are:

  • Canola

  • Corn

  • Cotton

  • Papaya

  • Soy

  • Sugar beets

  • Yellow squash

  • Zucchini

Products derived from these foods, including oils, all contain traces of GMOs. The GMO epidemic is making it harder to eat chemical-free, whole foods.

The 10 most popular foods that can contain genetically modified ingredients are:

  1. Carbonated soft drinks (high fructose corn syrup made from sugar beets)

  2. Milk (cows are fed genetically modified soy products)

  3. Meat (farm animals are raised with genetically modified feed containing soy products)

  4. Tofu (soy beans)

  5. Vegetable and canola oils (rapeseed, soybean, corn, sunflower and safflower)

  6. Cereals (corn and soy products and non-cane sugars)

  7. Sweetened juices (corn-based and sugar beet sweeteners)

  8. Baby formula (corn, sugar beets, and soy)

  9. Frozen foods (starch is added from corn, fats and oils from genetically modified plants and citric acid from genetically modified microorganisms)

  10. Canned soups (corn-based thickeners and flavoring enhancements)

How to avoid GMOs

Food manufacturers are not required to label if their food is genetically modified, but GMO labeling advocates continue to raise concerns surrounding this issue. Until laws change, there is some hope for steering clear of GMOs if you wish to do so. The following guidelines may help you keep the GMOs in your diet to a minimum:

  1. Buy beef that is labeled as grass-fed only.

  2. Buy food that is labeled 100 percent organic. It has no GMOs.

  3. Buy whole foods that you can prepare yourself instead of processed or prepackaged foods.

  4. Look for "non-GMO" or "GMO-free" labels.

  5. Shop at local farmers markets. These are much less likely to carry genetically-altered foods.

Teems does not think we'll know the real impact of GMOs any time soon.

"Ultimately I would like to see a study on GMOs done by an academic institution to ensure it is an unbiased study. But that study would have to be so complex to get to the bottom of it. There would have to be various study groups to include those eating processed foods and those eating a fruit and veggie diet."

Learn more about nutrition for cancer survivors.

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