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What Are Genetically Modified Foods?

Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on November 30, 2022

Genetically modifying food may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but a lot of the foods we eat – and ingredients animals consume – have altered DNA.

This is often done to protect crops as they grow, but genetically modifying food sources isn’t limited to fruits and vegetables. Despite concerns about safety, the FDA, World Health Organization, and other leading health organizations say they’re safe to eat.

Foods that are often modified include corn and soybeans. GMOs can be turned into products like cornstarch, corn syrup, soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, or granulated sugar.

Genetically modified cotton can be used in textiles, and scientists can change organisms to be used in medications like human insulin, too.

Genetically modified foods, or GM foods, are also called bioengineered foods, or BE foods.

What Is a Genetically Modified Food?

A genetically modified food is made with a genetically modified organism (GMO) or living thing. A GMO is an animal, plant, or microorganism.

To genetically modify an animal, plant, or microorganism, scientists use the genetic engineering process, which is also called modern biotechnology, gene technology, or recombinant DNA technology.

First, they determine a trait they want the GMO to have – like being able to resist insects. They then find an animal, plant, or microorganism with that trait, copy the gene with that trait, and insert it into the animal, plant, or microorganism. They let the new GMO grow. If it’s successful, it’s shared.

Most of the GMOs made in the U.S. are used to feed animals.

Why Do We Genetically Modify Foods?

The main reasons are to help crops resist plant diseases, and to help them stand up to herbicides,which are used to control weeds or other plants that can negatively impact growing. Using genetically modified foods can lower food prices by improving how much food can be harvested, which can boost reliability during uncertain growing seasons.

In some cases, genetically modifying a food can improve its nutritional value – for example, producing genetically modified soybeans with healthier oils that don’t contain harmful trans fats. When scientists added beta carotenes to rice, it prevented blindness in children in developing countries.

In the future, bioengineering food could be used to remove allergens, change nutrients in the food, or improve efficiency in the production process.

Bioengineered foods include:

  • Alfalfa
  • Apple
  • Canola
  • Corn
  • Cotton
  • Eggplant (BARI Bt Begun varieties)
  • Papaya (ringspot virus-resistant varieties)
  • Pineapple (pink flesh varieties)
  • Potato
  • Salmon (AquAdvantage)
  • Soybean
  • Squash (summer)
  • Sugarbeet

Scientists are working on producing genetically modified meat. There’s already salmon on the market that’s genetically modified to grow faster. The GalSafe pig doesn’t include alpha-gel sugar on its cells, which can cause allergic reactions in some people. It can be eaten or used for therapeutic purposes (like making medicine from it).

Does the U.S. Regulate Genetically Modified Food?

Yes. The FDA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Department of Agriculture have authority over most GMOs.

There weren’t requirements to label GM foods before January 2022. Now, manufacturers must label foods that contain GMOs under the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. If an ingredient meets the definition of a GMO, the food label must say so.

The Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for food ingredient transparency, criticizes the law, saying it only requires manufacturers to label products with detectable levels of modified genetic material – and some GMOs could fall through the cracks. It only applies to food that directly goes to humans. It doesn’t look at crops that animals feed on.

Are GM Foods Safe? Should I Avoid Them?

Critics of GM foods say the products could introduce allergens, could make bacteria resistant to existing antibiotics, or be toxic, among other concerns. They also call for more long-term studies, saying the existing evidence doesn’t follow up (in most cases) beyond a few months. (On the flip side, GMOs are relatively new – the first GM product, human insulin, was made in 1982.)

The FDA and World Health Organization say GM foods on the market are as safe (and healthful) as foods that haven’t been genetically changed. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says there aren’t any health risks if you eat foods made with GMOs.

There’s no difference in how GM foods and non-GM foods affect animals who eat them. That means that eating a GM food doesn’t change the DNA of the animal that eats it – so the animal itself doesn't become genetically modified.

GM foods aren’t any healthier than their non-modified counterparts, but experts say that could change in the future. A GM food could be healthier if the modified food doesn’t contain an allergen that could cause a harmful allergic reaction.

It’s up to you to choose whether to avoid GM foods. The federal government’s new labeling rules can help you see if a food you eat has been genetically modified.

How Can I Tell if My Food Contains GMOs?

If a food is sold in the U.S., its label must show if it meets the definition of being genetically modified. A product label shows if it contains GMOs by featuring:

  • A symbol
  • Scannable links
  • Text message instructions
  • Phone numbers
  • Website addresses

Terms like “bioengineering,” “genetically modified organism,” “GMO,” and “genetic engineering” can all be used on packaging.

Organic products are free from GMOs, so buying those is one way to avoid GMOs if you choose to do so.

 

 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Pew Research Center: “Many Publics Around World Doubt Safety of Genetically Modified Foods.” 

U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “GMO Crops, Animal Food, and Beyond," “GMOS and Your Health,” “How GMOs Are Regulated in the United States,” “Science and History of GMOs and Other Food Modification Processes.” 

World Health Organization: “Food, Genetically Modified.”

University of Connecticut: “GMOs and Food Safety.”

Food Science & Nutrition: “Should We Still Worry About the Safety of GMO Foods? Why and Why Not? A Review.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Information for Consumers,” “List of Bioengineered Foods,” “Organic 101: Can GMOs Be Used in Organic Products?”

Non-GMO Project: “What You Need To Know About Bioengineered (BE) Food Labeling.”

Center for Food Safety: “GE Food & Your Health.”

NC State Extension: “How Long Has the Health Benefit / Risk of GMO in Our Foods Been Studied? Are There Any Long-Term Studies Examining the Effects of GMO Products on Humans?”

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: “Foods Made With GMOs Do Not Pose Special Health Risks.”

Purdue University: “Do GMOs Harm Health?” 

 

 

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