GMOs, a term that's thrown around all the time but rarely understood, have been taking a lot of flack lately. The latest confusion and controversy has prompted Whole Foods to pull Chobani yogurt from its shelves and General Mills to remove all GMOs from boxes of Cheerios. But how many people actually know what they are?
GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are plants and animals that have had been created through gene splicing—the merging of DNA from different species to make a new one. Many strains of alfalfa, canola, papaya, zucchini, soy, sugar beets (a main source of white sugar), and corn (which is pretty much in everything) are genetically modified, according to the Non-GMO Project. And while we're really just starting to talk about GMOs, we've actually been eating them for more than two decades.
When food scientists first developed GMOs, they believed the technology would boost crop yields and profits, says dietician Jaime Mass, RDN, LDN. "Most GMO crops were created to be pest-resistant, or to survive herbicide use. If crops aren't killed by pesticides or little critters then we will grow more of that crop, make a lot more money, and potentially feed more people." However, recent findings published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability show that conventional methods of breeding corn and soy actually increase yields more than genetic modification processes do. Still, the big question is: Are they safe to eat?
The government hasn't ruled one way or another, and the Food and Drug Administration doesn't have the authority to require approval before GM foods hit supermarket shelves, meaning that untested—and potentially unsafe—GMOs are free to fill grocery carts and American stomachs alike.
"The science is starting to reveal some major concerns, and it could be just the beginning," Mass says. Preliminary research published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences suggests that consumption of GM corn may contribute to weight gain as well as liver and kidney problems.
Some experts equate GMOs to genetic roulette. Gene splicing creates new, artificial species that have not evolved over time like "real" foods have. "We're consuming foods that contain, in simple terms, unnatural DNA," Mass says.
What's more, recent research has linked GMOs with a massive increase in herbicide use—an additional 527 million pounds between 1996 and 2011. The result? One major herbicide called glyphosate has been detected in high concentrations in genetically modified foods. "There's reason to continue studying GMOs to fully understand the impact they may have on our health over the long term," Mass says. "Until scientists can come up with a clear and unbiased safety profile for humans, many believe it would be responsible to start educating the public and labeling foods."
To complicate matters, foods containing GMOs are not currently labeled as such. So if you want to cut out genetically modified foods altogether, eating organic is a good place to start. However, more non-organic food manufacturers are also pledging to rid their products (like Cheerios) of GMOs. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a voluntary "GMO-free" label from the Non-GMO Project. To see all of the foods currently bearing the badge, check out the Non-GMO Project's list of approved GMO-free foods.