What’s the Deal with GMOs? Myths vs. Facts
By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD
Genetically modified foods are at the center of continuous debate in the nutrition world.
While some experts argue that genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are dangerous to human health and the environment, others suggest that GMOs are safe and necessary to produce enough food for a growing population.
Based on current research, there is no evidence that eating genetically modified foods causes any known harm to human health. Nevertheless, there are still several myths about genetically modified foods and a need for more extensive research (1, 2, 3, 4).
This post identifies common myths surrounding genetically modified foods and highlights the current state of knowledge about these foods.
What are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have been genetically altered to yield specific characteristics.
For example, plants may be genetically modified to develop resistance to insects and disease that wipe out crops or to contain different levels of nutrients. Crops can also be engineered to be more tolerant to pesticides and to yield larger harvests in order to feed more people.
Corn and soy are two of the most genetically modified plants in the United States. In fact, over 90% of American corn and soy is grown from genetically engineered seeds that yield herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant crops (5).
Since corn and soy are pervasive ingredients in the American food supply, many common foods contain genetically modified ingredients.
Corn and soybean oils are used to increase the shelf life and alter the texture of countless processed foods, including salad dressings, condiments, breads, crackers, and baked goods. What’s more, most restaurants use corn and soybean oils to prepare meals and fry foods.
Other foods that may be genetically modified include canola, apples, potatoes, beets, papayas, and squash.
Not all genetically modified foods need to be labeled as such. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only requires genetically engineered foods that are significantly different than their non-GMO counterparts to have a label that indicates modification (6).
However, food companies can elect to label their foods as non-GMO if desired, and can use the terms “not genetically engineered,” “not bioengineered,” or “not genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology” (6).
Foods that do not contain GMOs may also have a label from the Non-GMO Project, an organization that evaluates the contents of products to ensure they do not contain genetically modified ingredients (7).
Lastly, foods that carry a USDA Organic label do not contain GMOs and cannot be grown from genetically engineered seeds (8).
GMOs: Myths vs. Facts
The debate surrounding GMOs is undoubtedly complicated, but many of the arguments against genetically modified crops are more myth-based than factual.
That being said, more research is needed to fully understand the effects of genetically modified crops on human health and the environment.
However, based on the current state of research, here are several of the major myths surrounding GMOs as well as the science-based responses to these concerns.
Myth: Genetically modified foods are harmful to human health.
Arguments against GMOs often claim that they play role in the development of cancer, acne, diabetes, obesity, asthma, food allergies, autoimmune conditions, and more.
Fact: Genetically modified foods do not pose health risks, and do not have a different effect on health than non-GMO foods.
Based on a review of 20 years of research, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine concluded that there is “no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between currently commercialized genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops” (1).
Furthermore, GMO foods are not any more likely to cause food allergies than non-GMO foods. The FDA requires rigorous testing of all genetically modified foods to ensure that they are not allergenic (9).
Myth: Genetically modified foods ruin the environment.
Some people argue that genetically engineered crops require more pesticides, water, and land, and/or disturb natural ecosystems.
Fact: On the contrary, genetically modified foods have not been shown to disrupt the environment.
A meta-analysis of the environmental and economic impact of GMOs found that using genetically modified crops helped reduce overall pesticide use by 37% and increase crop yields by 22% (10).
Other studies suggest that genetically modified plants may help preserve biodiversity. This is because using bioengineered crops can help farmers better maintain their land by reducing heavy pesticide and herbicide use. As a result, they may not need to cultivate new land that’s already inhabited by other plants and animals (11).
Myth: Genetically modified foods are more expensive than foods that are not bioengineered.
Since GMOs are engineered by scientists, some people assume that they will cost more than other foods.
Fact: Genetically modified foods are often less expensive than their non-GMO counterparts.
Since genetically engineered crops are more efficient and can yield more food on less land, they tend to be less expensive than non-GMO ingredients.
A study out of Purdue University evaluated the economic impact of removing GMOs from the food system. The researchers found that the price of corn and soybeans would increase by up to 22% and 28%, respectively, if GMOs were eliminated (12).
Since corn and soy are in so many foods, getting rid of the GMO varieties of these plants could result in significant changes in food costs.
Myth: Genetically modified foods make you gain weight.
Blaming GMOs for weight gain is a common argument in the media buzz surrounding genetically modified foods.
Fact: Consuming more calories than you need, not GMOs, is the cause of weight gain.
There is no research that suggests an association between the intake of genetically modified foods and weight gain. Consuming more calories than you need, whether that’s from genetically engineered foods or non-GMO foods, is the true underlying cause of weight gain.
Myth: Genetically modified foods are not regulated.
Some proponents of a non-GMO food system claim that genetically engineered foods do not undergo testing before hitting the market, or that they are not held to the same standards as non-GMO foods.
Fact: Genetically modified foods undergo rigorous testing and are regulated by the FDA, USDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Even though genetically engineered foods do not require a label, government agencies have strict testing requirements for bioengineered crops. It can take several years for a genetically modified plant to receive approval (13).
Myth: Genetically modified foods are less nutritious.
Some people claim that since GMOs aren’t “natural,” they can’t be as nutritious as fruits and vegetables that are not genetically modified.
Fact: Genetically modified foods are just as nutritious as their non-GMO counterparts.
While research is limited, it appears that bioengineered foods are not any less nutritious than non-GMO foods. Some varieties of genetically modified crops are even altered to contain higher amounts of certain nutrients (14).
Are there GMOs in Healthy For Life Meals?
We focus on using fresh, whole foods in our meal plans, some of which may be genetically modified.
Healthy For Life Meals shares the evidence-based viewpoints of respected organizations, such as the FDA, EPA, USDA, the World Health Organization (WHO), and National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. These authorities have stated that GMOs do not pose any known health risks and are safe to eat.
If you have questions about GMOs, please review the information outlined above and refer to our statements about GMOs here.
Note from Healthy For Life Meals: Our meal plans focus on using clean, whole , nutrient-dense foods and are nutritionally balanced and fully prepared, so you don’t need to worry about planning and prepping! Get started with one of our meal plans today to start feeling healthy for life.