Genetically modified foods have frequently given rise to controversy, which means that it can sometimes be difficult to tell fact from misconception. In this Honest Nutrition feature, we explore the facts and dispel the most prevalent myths.

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Illustration by Diego Sabogal

Genetically modified foods (GM foods), often called “bioengineered foods” or “transgenic foods,” continue to be a controversial topic of discussion.

Despite their extensive history and widespread use, consumers worldwide do not always have access to sufficient and accurate information about these foods.

There is further skepticism surrounding their safety and environmental and health impacts.

In this Honest Nutrition feature, we explain what GM foods are, their importance, and what research has discovered about their safety and health implications.

GM foods have undergone deliberate changes to their DNA (genetic material) to introduce traits that do not naturally occur in that food. Genes from one organism are placed into another organism using recombinant DNA technology. The final food product is called GM or bioengineered food.

This genetic modification may be carried out to enhance the agricultural features of the crop or improve its nutritional value.

For example, “golden rice,” one of the earlier GM foods, consists of modified rice with high levels of beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. The inclusion of this substance gives the rice a yellow or golden appearance, hence its name.

GM foods are a subcategory of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which also include the genetic modification of microorganisms and animals.

The practice of manipulating the genetic material of crops to yield desirable traits is not new, with records dating back 10,000 years ago in Southwest Asia.

Traditionally, crossbreeding, grafting, and selective breeding methods were used to rear produce with specific traits and were deemed desirable for both agricultural success and consumer expectations.

To answer this question, we must consider several factors.

Population growth

With an estimated world population of 9 billion by 2049, there is an agricultural challenge to meet the growing demand for nutritious foods.

Arguably, conventional farming and food production have not been able to sustain a consistent supply. At the same time, traditional selective breeding can take at least 10 years before the desirable characteristics are portrayed consistently in the domesticated crops.

However, modern-day biotechnology enables specific genes to be identified, isolated, and inserted into crops of interest to enhance their features.

Bioengineering of crops and other technological applications to food production are faster and have filled a major gap in the supply and demand chain.

Agricultural quality and stability

A downfall of traditional farming is the susceptibility of the crop to drought, disease, and pest infestations as well as large volumes of pesticide and herbicide use.

Therefore, environmental pressures threaten consistent crop production.

For this reason, GM foods are modified to support the reliability of the food supply and consistent quality of the final crop.

They include, for example:

  • GM corn plants that are resistant to drought and allow for increased yield
  • GM soybeans that are resistant to herbicides and require less to be applied to the plant
  • GM salmon (AquAdvantage) that grow twice as fast, enabling greater availability
  • papaya that are virus-free
  • potatoes that do not brown when cut

Enhanced nutritional properties

Although agricultural improvements have been at the forefront of bioengineering and GM foods, some modifications have focused on enhancing the nutritional profile of foods.

For example, pink-flesh pineapples in Costa Rica have high levels of carotenoids — compounds found in plants that may reduce the risk of chronic disease, such as heart disease, in humans.

The increased concentration of the essential amino acid, lysine, in corn, and beta-carotene in golden rice, are other examples.

Ongoing research is also exploring how to enhance the nutritional value of transgenic products, including modifying probiotics and prebiotics to improve gut health.

These efforts are also of public health interest to make essential nutrients often lacking in the diet widely available to the population.

The Agricultural Marketing Service of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains a list of bioengineered foods from around the world.

This list is publicly available and serves to inform regulating bodies about which foods they must issue food disclosure notices.

It is important to note that many of these GM foods are used as ingredients to make other food products. Therefore, people most likely consume food products made with ingredients derived from GM food crops.

However, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), from January 2022, new laws require food labels to display “bioengineered food,” whether the food itself or ingredients in the food product have been genetically modified.

These labels will make consumers aware so that they retain buying power and make informed food decisions.

Below is a compilation of the current GM foods around the world. All these foods have been evaluated by the FDA and determined to be safe for human consumption.

GM foodReasons for genetic modificationCountriesFood uses
AlfalfaHerbicide tolerance. Reduce lignin.U.S., CanadaHerbal supplements, alfalfa sprouts, animal feed
Apples
(Artic varieties)
Reduce browning.U.S., CanadaFruit, fruit products
CanolaHerbicide tolerance. Reduce phytate. Pollination control.U.S., Canada, AustraliaCooking oil, margarine, animal feed
CornHerbicide tolerance. Resistance to insects. Increased yield Pollination control. Increased lysine (essential amino acid).U.S., Canada, European Union, Brazil, Costa Rica, Argentina, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Paraguay, South Africa, Honduras, Philippines, PakistanWhole corn products, cornmeal, cornstarch, corn syrup, animal feed
EggplantResistance to insects.Bangladesh, IndiaCooking
PapayaResistance to viruses.U.S., Canada, ChinaFruit, fruit products
Pineapple (pink flesh)Increased carotenoids. No flowering.Costa RicaFresh fruit
PotatoReduce browning. Less black spot bruising. Resistance to viruses. Resistance to insects.U.S., CanadaCooking
Salmon (AquAdvantage)Growth rate.U.S., Canada
SoybeanHerbicide tolerance. Altered oil profile. Increased yield.U.S., Canada, South Africa, Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, MexicoCooking oil, tofu
Squash (summer)Resistance to viruses.U.S., CanadaCooking, canned products
SugarbeetHerbicide tolerance.U.S., CanadaGranulated sugar, beverages

Myth: GM foods are dangerous

Fact: Despite widespread skepticism, several studies, including this 2017 study, along with the World Health Organization (WHO) and FDA, have declared that GM foods are safe.

Three regulating bodies — the FDA, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the USDA — collaborate to rigorously test and monitor the safety of GMOs in the United States.

  • The FDA maintains strict food safety standards for GM foods.
  • The EPA regulates pesticides and plant-incorporated protectants that make GM crops resistant to insects and viruses.
  • The USDA ensures that GM foods are not harmful to other plants by monitoring for cross-pollination and planting best practices.

Myth: GM foods cause allergies

Fact: Proteins in foods are often responsible for food allergies. 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.

This is rare, but a documented case revealed that contamination from a GMO crop not intended for human consumption caused the reaction and not components of the GM food itself.

Furthermore, a 2017 study found that GM foods were either not allergenic or no more allergenic than their nongenetically modified counterparts.

Myth: Cell cultured meat (lab meat) are GM foods

Fact: This is a common misconception.

Although cell-cultured meat and GM foods both use bioengineering techniques, cell-cultured meat specifically uses cell tissue engineering.

Animal-free meat uses unmodified cells from the animal of interest — for example, cows — and creates a lab environment that can support the growth of these cells in a lab.

This new technology attempts to meet increased population demand for meat while offering an option that reduces the rate of foodborne illnesses and the environmental impacts of concentrated animal feeding operations.

Myth: Seedless fruits and vegetables are GM foods

Fact: Seedless fruits and vegetables are desired by some for their convenience but are received with hesitancy by others.

These foods are not genetically modified but are cross-pollinated, grafted, or undergo hormonal regulation to acquire this feature.

Some concerns do remain regarding GM foods’ potential negative impact on the environment. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations list the following issues, among others:

  • Undesired crossbreeding — when one species’ genes pass into a different plant species, potentially creating issues such as herbicide-resistant weeds. Research around the impact of such unwanted transfers remains inconclusive.
  • The occurrence of harmful mutations, which is under investigation, though here, too, studies remain inconclusive.
  • GM plant crops may end up competing with native plant populations, threatening biodiversity.
  • Potential disruption to food chains or ecosystem cycles through unintended impact on birds, insects, and soil microorganisms.

GM foods, or bioengineered or transgenic foods, have been surrounded by controversy, yet they have proven benefits to the food supply and demand chain.

These foods are shown to be safe for human consumption, although more studies are needed to define clearly their overall nutritional value and long-term health impacts.

The close monitorization of GM foods’ possible impact on the environment is also an important consideration going forward.