Genetically modified foods are a mystery
It sounds like the stuff of science fiction – yet it’s entirely real. Genetically modified foods are surprisingly common, yet most of us have barely a rudimentary understanding of what they are. And most of us would be shocked to discover we’re generally serving them up to our children three times a day. That slow-good Heinz Ketchup? Likely contains GM ingredients. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes? Uh-huh. Teddy Grahams? Probably.
Genetically modified (also called genetically engineered or biotech) foods are produced when genetic makeup (from plants or animals) has been altered through a process called recombinant DNA, or gene splicing, to create a desirable trait. GM foods differ from non-GM foods in that they contain one or more new genes and usually make a new protein.
What’s wrong with that? Well…the problem is that nobody can say definitively if there’s anything wrong with that. GM foods are uncharted territory. While farmers have always selected the best seeds from a harvest to propagate traits that are desirable – climate hardiness, pest-resistance, etc. – genetic modification moves us into an arena that Mother Nature simply couldn’t go on her own. And once there, there’s no turning back, which is a large part of why many environmentalists are concerned.
What’s more, playing fast and loose with DNA can create new toxins, introduce new allergens, reduce nutritional value (something studies already reveal), create antibiotic resistant disease and increase certain cancers. There is increasing concern about children eating GM foods for a number of reasons: children’s rapid development means GM food has a bigger influence, children are three to four times more prone to allergies, children are more susceptible to nutritional problems and they’re in danger from antibiotic resistant diseases.
Yet, little research has gone into GM foods. Other countries are less laissez-faire about the issue. The European Union, Japan, Hungary and Brazil, among other countries all disallow GM foods or only allow limited GM crops. And they insist on GM foods being labeled as such.
Not so in North America. According to a CBS/New York Times poll, 65 percent of foods on grocery store shelves contain unlabelled GM ingredients (mostly from corn and soy). And with the first crop of genetically modified sugar beets being planted – and companies such as Kellogg’s insisting that their customers don’t mind sugar from GM crops – we’re about to see a lot more. But you won’t find it anywhere on the label.
Proponents of GM food say that this technology could feed the world – good news as our global food crisis worsens. However, a recent three-year study from the University of Kansas actually showed that crop yield was lower with GM crops than with conventional crops. And that nutritional value was compromised. According to Deborah Koons Garcia, creator of a documentary on genetically modified foods, The Future of Foods, 80 to 90 percent of consumers are outraged to discover that GM food in is our supply. “We don’t want it,” says Garcia. “It hasn’t been properly tested…”
What can a concerned parent do?
• Start by cutting back on or eliminating processed foods.
• Buy foods that are certified organic. Organic foods cannot contain any GM ingredients.
• Steer clear of such ingredients as soy protein, soy flour, soy protein isolate, lecithin, isoflavones, corn-flour, syrup, starch, masa, aspartame, dextrose, fructose, monosodium glutamate and xanthan gum (for a list of which brands are free of GM ingredients, go to www.truefoodnow.org/shoppersguide
• Leslie Garrett is an award-winning journalist and author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and one our kids will thank us for!). Visit her at www.virtuousconsumer.com