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Genetically modified foods: Helpful or harmful?

A great deal of controversy surrounds foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Are they safe? Not safe? Should they be regulated or not regulated?

Two things are certain: foods containing GMOs are hitting the market at a rapid pace and they are found in most processed foods. Staying informed on what GMOs are, how they may affect your body, and what foods contain them is all a part of living a healthy, balanced life.

What are GMOs?

GMOs have been in our food supply for more than 20 years. They are made by scientists who have genetically introduced new traits or characteristics to an organism, allowing it to grow faster, look better, taste sweeter, resist herbicides, etc.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates foods and ingredients made from genetically engineered plants and animals to help ensure that they are safe to eat, some argue that the effects they have on the human body are not fully understood. 

"GMOs are not natural and could never happen naturally," says Jennifer Teems, MS, RD, LD, a Piedmont clinical dietitian. "But it's important to remember that foods and products today are held to much higher standards than ever before in history." 

How do GMOs affect the body?

According to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), there are no human clinical trials of GMO foods, but those done with animals indicate serious health risks linked to GMOs. These include:

Another concern is that because these foods are engineered to withstand herbicides, more of the toxic substances are sprayed on the plants, which ultimately increases the trace amounts of herbicides found in foods.

"Food is so complex that it’s hard to study it and determine the ramifications of GMOs," says Teems. "I tell my patients not to fixate on avoiding GMOs, because that’s nearly impossible. Instead, concentrate on eating a heart-healthy diet that is high in fruits and veggies, and low in added sugar and processed foods.”

Which foods have GMOs?

The most common genetically modified crops in the U.S. are:

  • Canola

  • Corn

  • Cotton

  • Papaya

  • Soy

  • Sugar beets

  • Yellow squash

  • Zucchini

Products derived from these foods, including oils, all contain traces of GMOs. The 10 most popular foods that contain GMOs are:

  1. Carbonated soft drinks (high fructose corn syrup made from sugar beets)

  2. Milk (cows are fed genetically modified soy products)

  3. Meat (farm animals are raised with genetically modified feed containing soy products)

  4. Tofu (GMO soy beans)

  5. Vegetable and canola oils (rapeseed - canola, soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower)

  6. Cereals (corn and soy products and non-cane sugars)

  7. Sweetened juices (corn- and sugar beet-based sweeteners)

  8. Baby formula (GMO corn, sugar beets and soy)

  9. Frozen foods (starch is added from GM corn, fats and oils from GM plants, citric acid made from GM microorganisms)

  10. Canned soups (corn-based thickeners and flavoring enhancements)

How to avoid GMOs

Food manufacturers are not required to label if their food is genetically modified, but GMO labeling advocates continue to raise concerns surrounding this issue. Until laws change, there is some hope for steering clear of GMOs if you wish to do so. The following guidelines may help you keep the GMOs in your diet to a minimum:

  1. Buy food that is labeled 100 percent organic. It has no GMOs.

  2. Choose whole foods that you can prepare yourself instead of processed or prepackaged foods.

  3. Look for "non-GMO" or "GMO-free" labels.

  4. Purchase grass-fed beef.

  5. Shop at local farmers markets. These are much less likely to carry genetically-altered foods.

Teems does not think we'll know the real impact of GMOs any time soon.

"Ultimately I would like to see a study on GMOs done by an academic institution to ensure it is an unbiased study. But that study would have to be so complex to get to the bottom of it. There would have to be various study groups to include those eating processed foods and those eating a healthy diet."

Get more Living Better nutrition tips.

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