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Food Looks the Same Today, But Is It?

Robyn O'Brien, Author, Analyst and Inspired American.
Food Looks the Same Today, But Is It?
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The landscape of food has changed. Not only is it available 24/7 and marketed to us using mobile apps and Internet games, but it is also full of lots of ingredients that just didn't exist when we were kids. So while our food may look the same, it now contains artificial, engineered and genetically altered ingredients that are so new that patents have been filed on them in the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Not something any busy eater wants to hear. Especially a busy parent who is doing his or her best to simply get the kids to eat.

But we are quickly learning that the ingredients in our foods - the good ones that include vitamins and minerals and the ones that have the potential to cause harm - have a lot to do with the health of our families.

And if you are just getting started on trying to eat a little cleaner or reduce your family’s exposure to artificial ingredients, you may be hearing about something called "genetically engineered foods." If you haven't heard about them, you're not alone. While countries around the world labeled these ingredients when they were introduced in the 1990s, we didn't here.

So a lot has changed in our food in the last decade, and given the juggling act that most of us perform on a daily basis, coupled with the fact that these new ingredients were never labeled, it's no surprise that we are only just beginning to have this dialogue around the labeling of these ingredients here in the United States. States like California, North Carolina and other have taken a lead on it. But the dialogue is now being held at the national level, with millions of citizens calling on the FDA to do the same. So we put together a short Q&A, working with researchers who have not accepted funding from or developed patents for the corporations developing these new products, to pull together this information for you.


Questions and Health Concerns

What are genetically engineered (GE) foods?

These are foods created from the insertion of a gene, bacteria or virus from one species into a different species to produce a desired effect, usually resistance to herbicides or insects. The terms genetically modified (GM) and genetically modified organisms (GMO's) are typically used interchangeably with GE.

Are they the same as foods from traditional breeding?

No. Traditional breeding between the same or similar species, such as crossing two types of corn or apples, has been done for thousands of years. GE foods, only developed in the past few decades, are created in a lab and are between different species.

What kinds of food are genetically engineered?

There are currently six major foods sold in the U.S. that are typically genetically engineered. These are listed below with the percent that are genetically engineered according to the United States Department of Agriculture:

  • Corn 88%
  • Soybeans 94%
  • Cotton (Cottonseed oil) 90%
  • Canola 90%
  • Sugar beets 95%

Because most of these are used widely, about two-thirds of processed food contains a GE ingredient. Conversely, the vast majority of raw fruits and vegetables are not GE. Organic foods, by definition, can't be GE.

Does genetic engineering improve the nutritional quality of foods?

No. There are no GE foods on the market in which nutritional quality is enhanced beyond a non-GE food counterpart.

Is the act of genetic engineering precise?

No. The entire foundation of GE is that the introduction of one foreign gene, bacteria or virus into a plant will activate one protein, producing one desired effect and nothing more. But this ignores basic science - the chances of harmful unintended consequences with GE are substantially increased:

One gene often creates multiple proteins

  • The location of the gene often varies, which can affect whether it produces the desired protein or not
  • The insertion of the gene can disrupt the genetic blueprint of the plant
  • The new gene can either silence other genes that were normally active or activate other genes that were silent
  • A promoter (typically a virus) is usually added that helps the gene activate a desired protein. However, it may also activate other proteins that were silent, which could lead to harmful effects on humans.

What evidence of harmful effects are there?

The deadliest incident occurred in the food supplement l-tryptophan, which had been used safely by millions of people as a sleep aid for decades. However, when a Japanese company produced a GE version in the late 1980's, thousands of people contracted an extremely painful, serious disease, EMS, that killed at least 37 and left thousands with disabilities, including paralysis.[ii] The FDA subsequently removed virtually all l-tryptophan off the market, although only the GE version was linked to EMS.

It's more difficult to detect harmful conditions such as cancer, birth defects, toxins or allergies, since they have other causes and/or can take longer to develop than EMS. Moreover, the FDA doesn’t require GE foods to be labeled, so most people don't know they’re consuming them. This makes it virtually impossible to isolate and track them.

However, numerous credible animal studies all over the world have shown disturbing results. For example:

  • In Scotland, GE potatoes fed to rats showed lowered nutritional content and suffered damaged immune systems, smaller brains, livers and testicles and enlarged intestines;
  • In Australia, a harmless gene in a bean engineered into a pea produced immune reactions in mice, indicating allergic reactions and/or toxins;
  • In Austria, a government study showed that mice fed GE corn had fewer litters and fewer total offspring;
  • In France, a study found that GE corn previously thought harmless revealed hormone-dependent diseases and early signs of toxicity in rats;

Harm to animals doesn’t necessarily prove harm to humans. However, it is a definite indication that more studies should be done. This hasn’t happened.

How is safety testing done in the U.S.? Is it adequate?

The FDA is responsible for food safety. However, it doesn't do any testing on GE food and doesn't require any independent tests. The only studies done are by the same companies developing the foods and they're not required to give all their data to the FDA. They only need to declare their studies are adequate and that the GE food is safe. By and large, GE food safety is self-regulated.

The bottom line

Plants can be genetically engineered to be resistant to pests or herbicides. But in the process, there is evidence they may be causing harm to human health as an unintended consequence.

To learn more, please visit Just Label It and please join me on my website!


A former financial and food industry analyst who had the opportunity to meet Goldman Sachs' Henry Paulson, Ebay's Meg Whitman and Martha Stewart while working on the desk, Robyn O'Brien triggered an allergic reaction in the food industry when she asked: "Are we allergic to food or what's been done to it?" She is a best-selling author, public speaker, strategist and mother of four. She brings insight and detailed analysis to her research on the health of the American food system as documented in her first book, The Unhealthy Truth, and has been called "food's Erin Brockovich" by the New York Times.

Recruited by institutions like Enron and the oil and gas industry, Robyn grew up in Houston before moving to Colorado and is the founder of the AllergyKids Foundation, a 501 c3 non-profit.

The mission of AllergyKids is to make clean and safe food affordable to all families. Her focus is on restoring the health of American families in order to address the burden that disease in placing on our economy. AllergyKids addresses the needs of the 1 in 3 American children that now has allergies, autism, ADHD and asthma and the role that additives in our food supply are having on our health. The Foundation also works closely with those fighting cancer, particularly those with specific dietary needs.

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