Each week a nutritionist from the University of Maryland Medical Center provides a guest post to The Baltimore Sun's health blog Picture of Health (baltimoresun.com/pictureofhealth), which is printed here. This week, Karen Kolowski weighs in on genetically modified foods.
Organic, free-range, grass-fed — you need a dictionary just to get around the grocery store aisles these days. Products are being designed to better fit into our expanding society — items that grow faster, last longer on the shelf or are more productive. Some of these can occur naturally by cross-breeding similar species, but more commonly this happens inside the lab with scientists rearranging the genetic material. Genetically modified organisms or genetically engineered products are usually plant foods in which their molecular biology has been changed in ways that would not naturally occur in the environment.
Genetically modified foods have been enhanced so that they are more tolerant to weather changes, more resistant to pests and fortified with nutrients not naturally found in the organisms. The two most common traits incorporated into plants are a tolerance for herbicides and an insecticide that is now inside the plant, rather than being sprayed on it. The seeds are then marketed and sold with the expectation that they are going to produce better, stronger, more nutritious food, without the need to spray as many chemicals on the crop. Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the most commonly planted genetically modified crops in the U.S. since 2003 are soybeans, cotton and corn. Foods that are genetically engineered or contain products that are genetically engineered do not have to be labeled for the consumer.
These designer foods are regulated by three government agencies: the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Each of these agencies is required to conduct tests to ensure that the product is safe for humans and the environment.
The USDA regulates the field-testing of the seeds and their possible environmental impact. The EPA works with the genetically modified organisms that incorporate insecticides, fungicides and pesticides to try to ensure that there will be no environmental damage and that they are safe for human consumption. The FDA regulates genetically modified food and makes sure that they are safe to consume.
The most common concerns are allergic allergic reactions. Proteins cause allergic reactions, and to genetically modify a food product, proteins are moved from one food to another. For the majority of genetically modified crops, commonly known allergens are not used in genetic transfer. The FDA, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization have developed new tests for genetically modified foods. Currently, no allergic effects have been discovered with genetically modified products on the market.