As fitness professionals, the discussions you have with your clients may extend well beyond exercise and counting calories. Clients are reaching out to their trainers with questions about many of the current issues raised in the media that may affect their health, and the health of their loved ones. These questions may range anywhere from why people have more allergies today than they did in the past to why the incidence of autism has doubled between 2002 and 2012 (Bagley, 2012). Although there is little, if any, evidence to support answers to many of these questions, some are pointing the finger at the types of foods we are consuming.
Some people believe that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in foods may be responsible for the increase in some health related issues. GMOs have become a hot topic among people who are concerned with their health and in the United States a consumer needs to be very pro-active if they want to avoid GMO foods.
In order to best advise your clients, this article will highlight 3 things that you should know about GMOs:
- What GMOs are and why it matters,
- How GMOs are believed to affect the body, and
- How to avoid GMO foods when shopping or eating out.
GMO 101 – What it is and why it matters
Genetically modified organisms are the result of the genes from the DNA of one species extracted and artificially forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. These foreign genes can come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans. This process is often referred to as Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM).
Examples of genetic engineering include:
- Injecting new DNA into fertilized eggs with a fine needle,
- Using bacteria or viruses to “infect” plant or animal cells with new DNA,
- Coaching DNA into tiny metal pellets and firing it into the cells with a special gun, or
- Using electric shocks to create holes in the membrane covering sperm, and then forcing new DNA into the sperm through those holes.
We still don’t have a complete understanding of how DNA works or what side-effects may result as these changes are made to the new organism, however, there is concern that these changes could lead to instability, the creation of new toxins or allergens, as well as negative effects s on the nutritional value of foods.
Genetic engineering is unlike grafting trees, hybridizing seeds or breeding animals. Even when dissimilar species have been bred together, such as when a horse is bred with a donkey, the offspring, a mule, is sterile. Yet genetic engineering overcomes these limitations and breaks down barriers that have been set by nature. For example, some engineering has involved scientists splicing artic fish genes into tomatoes and strawberries to give them tolerance to frost, putting jellyfish genes into pigs so their noses glow in the dark, or putting spider genes into goat DNA with the intention of using goat milk to create bulletproof vests. In addition, this type of technology is combining human genes with corn, rice or sugarcane, combining lettuce genes with tobacco, and genetically engineering potatoes to glow in the dark when they need watering.
Although natural Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria has been used as a biological pesticide for insect control by organic farmers for years, genetic engineers decided to take nature one step further. They took the gene that produces the toxin in the bacteria and inserted it into the DNA of the crops so that the plant naturally produces a pesticide. The toxin creates holes in the stomachs of the insects and kills them. Every bite of corn of GM crops provides us with that toxic pesticide. The Bt protein in GM corn has a section of its amino acid sequence identical to egg yolk, a known allergen. This protein is too resistant to break down during digestion and heat (Smith, 2010).
There have been attempts to increase the nutritional value of foods through genetic engineering, but the only actual benefits to date enjoyed by genetic engineering have been economic, with the two main traits being herbicide tolerance and the ability of the plant to produce its own pesticide. Among some scientists, it’s believed that this type of technology really isn’t necessary to develop improved crop varieties. Another newer technology, which is believed to have none of the potentially dangerous side-effects of direct genetic modification, is Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) (Marker Assisted Selection in Seed Industry, 2012).
GMOs were introduced into the U.S. food supply in the mid-1990s and are now present in the majority of foods in the US, without any requirement by the FDA for labeling in food ingredient lists. Unlike the U.S., GMOs are banned as food ingredients in many other countries (Health and Consumers – Food, n. d.). Although very few countries conduct regular studies or keep careful records, one country that does keep annual records is England. Shortly after genetically modified soy was introduced into the diet in England, researchers at the York Laboratory reported that allergies to soy had increased by 50% in a single year.
Who cares? Perhaps our bodies
Why is there a concern about genetically engineering the foods we consume? There is a strong belief that GMOs are responsible for the increased incidence in allergies, toxins, infertility, immune system problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, changes in major organs of the gastrointestinal track, incidence of new diseases, and nutritional problems. Allergic reactions occur when the immune system interprets something as foreign or different. All GMOs are, by definition, foreign and different, and multiple studies of rats have supported this theory, which suggests that these same reactions may occur in humans. Some also wonder if this is a cause of increased incidents of autism in our children.
According to the American Academy of Environmental Nutrition, enough animal studies have been conducted to cause them to release a statement asking physicians to advise patients to avoid GM foods (Dean, 2009). Avoiding GM foods, however, can be difficult. Foods most altered in the U.S. include 94% of all soy, 90% of cotton and canola, 95% of sugar beets, 88% of corn, over 50% of papaya and over 24,000 acres of zucchini and yellow squash. Products derived from these altered foods, plus many other invisible ingredients derived from genetically modified crops, are hidden in much of our food on the shelves today (GMO Education, n. d.).
Unlike the rigorous safety evaluations for drugs, there are no human clinical trials of GMO foods. One of the few published experiments on human feeding of GMOs showed that the genetic material inserted into GM soy transfers into bacteria living inside our intestines and continues to function. This means that long after we stop eating GMO foods, we may still have the genetically altered proteins continually produced inside of us.
How to shop non-GMO
According to the Institute for Responsible Technology, there are three main things to look for when shopping non-GMO:
- Buy organic. Although many people believe that the FDA organic labeling is not to be trusted, the best defense is to educate yourself since labels can be misleading or confusing, and labeling regulations may change in the future. Current USDA regulations allow food products to display a USDA Organic Seal if they contain 95-100% certified organic ingredients and do not contain any GMOs. Products that are labeled “100% organic,” “organic,” or just “made with organic ingredients,” must also be non-GMO. Although some of the ingredients in products labeled “made with organic ingredients” may be non-organic, all ingredients are still non-GMO (What is organic, n. d.).
- Look for non-GMO Project Certified Seals. The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit, multi-stakeholder collaboration committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers and providing verified non-GMO choices (Non-GMO project, n. d.).
- Avoid at-risk ingredients. If it’s not labeled organic or doesn’t have a Non-GMO Project Verified Seal, avoid the processed food product ingredients made with corn, soybeans, canola, cottonseed, and beet sugar. To download a more in-depth list of these ingredients, read “Buy Non-GMO” (Buy Non-GMO, n. d.)
This article is just the tip of the iceberg, as they say. As a health and fitness professional, it’s up to you to use the resources listed in this article to further educate yourself in order to best help your clients navigate the GMO maze. Although there are not currently sufficient studies on the effects of GMOs in humans, you can take a pro-active stance in your health, the health of your family and that of your clients.
The Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT) provides professionals with a tool kit to help educate others (Action Toolkit, n. d.), has started a food policy fund (Food Policy Fund, n. d.), and provides GMO label speaker training (GMO Labeling Speaker Training, n. d.). Interested fitness professionals can also learn more and purchase books, DVDs and brochures from such sites as Seeds of Deception (Seeds of Deception, n. d.). Other ways to take action is to pay attention to potential legislation on GMOs.
Sometimes the trend to be healthy goes beyond what is easy. Shopping for non-GMO options and eating entirely non-GMO can be a challenge, but it may be a challenge worth taking.
- Begley, S (2012, May 29). New high in U.S. autism rates inspires renewed debate. Reuters.com. Retrieved February 4, 2012, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/29/us-autism-idUSBRE82S0P320120329
- Marker Assisted Selection in Seed Industry. (2012). Retrieved February 4, 2012, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjzwpD8AqDI
- Dean, A. (2009). Genetically Modified Foods. Retrieved February 4, 2012, from http://aaemonline.org/gmopost.html
- Health and Consumers – Food. (n. d.). Retrieved February 4, 2012, from http://ec.europa.eu/food/food/biotechnology/gmo_ban_cultivation_en.htm
- GMO Education. (n. d.) Retrieved February 4, 2012, from http://www.responsibletechnology.org/gmo-education
- Smith, J. (2010). State of the science on the health risks of gm foods. Retrieved from http://responsibletechnology.org/
- What is Organic. (n. d.). Retrieved February 4, 2012, from http://nongmoshoppingguide.com/what-is-organic.html
- Non-GMO project. (n. d.) Retrieved February 6, 2012, from http://www.nongmoproject.org/
- Buy Non-GMO. (n. d.) Retrieved February 6, 2012, from http://www.responsibletechnology.org/buy-non-gmo
- Action Toolkit. (n. d.) Retrieved February 7, 2012, from http://www.responsibletechnology.org/take-action/action-tool-kit
- Food Policy Fund. (n. d.) Retrieved February 7, 2012, from http://foodpolicyfund.org/index.html
- GMO Labeling Speaker Training with Jeffrey Smith. (n. d.) Retrieved February 7, 2012, from https://org2.democracyinaction.org/o/6236/p/salsa/donation/common/public/?donate_page_KEY=8744
- Seeds of Deception. (n. d.) Retrieved February 7, 2012, from http://seedsofdeception.com/non-gmo-education-center/