Genetically modifying our foods may sound like science fiction, but this practice has actually been widespread for decades. Learn exactly what GMO is, and whether we can rest easy when it comes to GMO for our health.

When it comes to our food and how it is grown, “GMO” may not yet be a household name.

But more than likely, if you have ever eaten food that comes in a package, you have eaten a GMO, or genetically modified, ingredient.

It is estimated that up to 75% of all processed foods contain GMO ingredients, so it is worth it to learn about GMO so that you can be empowered to make the best food choices for you.

What is a genetically modified organism (GMO)?

Simply put, genetic modification of an organism is a technique that allows for biologists to either change genes that already exist within an organism or incorporate new genes from one species to another to bring about more desirable, improved traits.

Some examples of desirable traits are a resistance from insects and sweetness in corn, a manufacturing of beta carotene in rice, a resistance from viruses in plums, and an increased growth rate in salmon.

The GMO process involves identifying what trait they want an organism to have by finding another organism that already has that trait within its genes, copying that gene with the desired trait, inserting the gene into the DNA of the organism, and then growing it.

Crop plants, soil bacteria, and farm animals have all been subject to genetic modification in recent years, but agricultural plant foods are the most frequently modified.

Why is GMO so controversial?

In spite of all of their apparent upsides, GMO practices have been met with resistance from various social and political groups, which has kept many countries from adopting them.

Advocates claim that genetically engineering crops fast-track the crop breeding process, greatly increase the harvested yield, improve nutrition, boost the diversity of crop varieties, and make the crops more robust against bacteria and viruses, which all could ultimately help combat malnutrition around the world.

But critics are heavily concerned that consuming GMO products can put our health at stake, especially since no long-term studies exist to confirm their safety.

A few of their worries include that aiming for crop resistance to bacteria can lead to human resistance to antibiotics, that genetically modified foods meant for animal feed can accidentally end up in our food supply, and that inserting allergy-causing genes can cause dangerous reactions in people with allergies.

They are also concerned about GMOs effects on the environment, with genes inadvertently passing on from one species to another, and impacting non-intended species like birds and insects.

Which foods are commonly genetically modified?

Among whole produce plants, potatoes, apples, summer squash, and papaya are commonly genetically modified to resist bruising, browning, and the effects of viruses and insects.

Ninety-four percent of all soy grown in the United States is genetically modified, but is used for food for poultry and livestock and is also used as ingredients like emulsifier and lecithin in processed foods.

Corn, canola, cottonseed, and sugar beets are also commonly genetically modified to be used as ingredients in packaged foods.

Does the evidence show that commercially available GMO foods are safe?

In 2016, in light of the concerns expressed about the safety of GMO practices, a National Academy of Sciences committee examined the available evidence regarding the potential health risks and benefits to human health of GMO foods compared to their conventionally-bred counterparts.

Specifically, the committee looked at possible effects of pesticide toxins found in GMO plants, the ability of GMO foods to cause allergic reactions, and their potential to increase rates of cancer, kidney disease, obesity, and gastrointestinal tract disease.

After extensively reviewing the evidence, the committee found no difference in risk to human health between GMO foods and non-GMO foods. In other words, they found no conclusive evidence of adverse health effects that could be attributed directly to GMO foods.

The committee even mentioned possible advantages to genetically modifying foods, like improved nutrition, the reduction of pesticide exposure to farmers and fungal toxin exposure to consumers.

In addition, a number of international health organizations such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization, and European Commission, have issued similar statements expressing confidence in the safety of GMO grown products.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that the studies the committee examined were conducted on animals, and that many of the studies were not long-term. For this reason, the committee and other organizations have acknowledged that the absolute safety of eating GMO foods is not certain.

Ways to avoid GMO

If you are still apprehensive when it comes to consuming GMO foods, there are a number of easy ways you can avoid them.

1. Choose organic .  100% organic foods are not allowed to contain any GMOs, so look for the “Certified Organic” symbol on your packaging.

2. Select packaging with “Non-GMO” labels. Many packaged products will clearly label that their ingredients are GMO-free.

3. Avoid the “Big 5” most common GMO ingredients. Steer clear of products that contain corn, soybeans, canola, sugar beets, and cottonseed, which are usually labeled as the following:

Corn: Corn flour, corn meal, corn starch, corn syrup, fructose, dextrose, glucose, and modified food starch.

Sugar beets: Any sugar that is not specified as 100% cane sugar.

Soy: Soy flour, lecithin, soy protein, soy isolate, isoflavone, vegetable oil, and vegetable protein.

Canola: Canola oil, known as rapeseed oil

Cottonseed: Cottonseed oil