Audra N. Rankin, DNP, APRN, CPNP, responds.Grocery shopping can be an intimidating task for parents who want to choose foods that are high in nutritional content, low in cost and, perhaps, most importantly, safe for their kids.
Many manufacturers use ingredient declarations such as “gluten free,” “nut free” and, more recently, “GMO free” as a way to market their products.
Although many parents understand the serious health problems associated with nut or gluten allergies, the risks and benefits of eating GMO/GMO-free foods are often not very clear.
Genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs, have become a hot topic in recent years, and the debate over their pros and cons seem to be more prevalent than ever before. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and multiple medical and health organizations have concluded there is currently no evidence to support the belief that GMO foods pose a human health risk, many activist groups have taken a strong stance against their production and consumption. The differing opinions of these groups make it difficult for families to make a well-informed decision on GMOs. As a parent, you may be asking yourself what exactly are GMOs, why foods need to be modified and whether you should be concerned about GMOs.
Why Foods Are Genetically Modified
The WHO defines GMOs as organisms that have been genetically altered in a way that doesn’t occur naturally. Common foods that are genetically engineered in the U.S. include corn, soy, canola and sugar beets.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine states there are many potential benefits of genetically engineered foods including:
* Disease-and drought-resistant plants.
* Decreased use of pesticides.
* Increased food supply.
* Longer shelf life.
Additionally, these foods may have added nutritional value through genetic modification. An example of this includes golden rice, which has the potential to be engineered with a high-beta-carotene content that aids with good vision and eye health.
Concern About GMOs in Your Family’s Diet
Potential risks of GMOs may include modified plants or animals that have undergone unexpected genetic changes. Opponents to GMOs may state that such foods have the potential to:
* Increase the risk of food allergy and toxicity.
* Decrease nutritional value.
* Increase antibiotic resistance.
Although there is the potential for public health benefits from GMOs, it is important to evaluate possible negative effects on human health. As compared to conventional foods, there are often additional testing systems in place to evaluate genetically modified foods on both humans and the environment.
The WHO states that testing may focus on the direct health effects of the GMOs (toxicity), the possibility of an allergic reaction, components which are considered to have nutritional or toxic properties, gene stability and any unintended effects from gene insertion. Testing is done on a case-by-case basis as each GMO may have genes inserted in different ways. Currently the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are all involved in genetically modified testing and regulation in the U.S.
It’s difficult for parents to weed out fact versus fiction about the safety of GMO consumption. For example, GMOs have been part of our diet for many years, and there has been no scientific evidence to suggest they increase the risk of cancer, obesity, kidney disease, diabetes, autism or celiac disease when compared with areas where GMO consumption is rare, such as Western Europe. However, some information sources paint a very different picture. Many websites, pamphlets and even professional organizations present strong opinions against GMOs that may not be backed with scientific evidence.
How to Know If You Are Buying GMO Products
The debate over GMOs is ongoing, with news on policy changes and legislation regarding labeling occurring on a daily basis, and non-GMO projects in many mainstream grocery stores. There has been a recent debate about the need for mandatory food labeling for GMO crops. Although many consumers desire the ability to quickly determine if they are consuming GMO foods, many companies believe it sends a public message that GMO foods pose a significant health or environmental risk, which has not been proven.
Many parents are surprised to learn that a number of foods, particularly processed foods, contain genetically engineered ingredients. A U.S. GMO food labeling bill, requiring food to label genetically-modified ingredients, passed in the Senate in July and is also expected to pass in the House of Representatives. If implemented, this law will make it easier for parents to identify foods being purchased in grocery stores that may contain a GMO ingredient.
As stated above, many major health organizations state there is currently no evidence to suggest GMOs are harmful for human health. Furthermore, GMOs are highly tested, often more than conventional food products. Much like medical treatments, drugs and vaccines, testing is necessary to weigh the risks and benefits of these foods in the future. Staying up to date on findings, backed by supporting scientific evidence, will make it easier to make an informed decision for your family.
Audra N. Rankin, DNP, APRN, CPNP, is an instructor at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in Baltimore.