You may have heard of the three-letter acronym "GMO," and may have even seen it used on labels of some of the foods you buy for your family. But most of us don't really understand what it means and why brands are excluding it from their products (that's why you often see "non-GMO" on labels). GMO stands for genetically modified organisms, which essentially translates to foods that have been changed in a way that does not occur naturally.
Food is modified for a number of reasons, many of which are good according to Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D., author of Expect the Best: Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy. “Modifications are made to food to make it more resistant to disease and insects, to extend its shelf life to prevent waste and to make it healthier,” she says. As a result of this valiant pursuit, an estimated 80% of processed foods in the U.S. have GMOs.
A little history: GMOs are nothing new. In fact, humans have been tinkering with foods for thousands of years—without even knowing it. One recent study found that sweet potatoes weren't "naturally occurring" some 8,000 years ago when farmers bred the swollen parts of regular-old potato roots to create an entirely new variety. With the discovery of DNA in the early 1900s, it became far more feasible, and easier, to directly modify certain products, including food.
Fast forward to 1994, when the first genetically modified tomato, Flavr Savr, hit the markets. It was genetically engineered to have a longer shelf life, but it failed when it did not possess the same fresh-picked taste of in-season tomatoes.
Still, various other crops were genetically modified through the mid-90s, including soybeans, corn, and cotton. All were engineered with insect resistance or herbicide tolerance and approved for use in commercial production, explains Jennie Schmidt, M.S., R.D., of Schmidt Farms Inc., in Ray, Michigan. "This was great for farmers because it allowed them to reduce or eliminate insecticide use as well as the toxicity level of herbicides from older formulations that are more dangerous to work with." In other words, farmers saw benefits and few drawbacks.
The truth is, there is little-to-no evidence to support the fact that GMOs can cause any harm to humans, even babies. "Genetically modified foods are regulated and have been consumed safely for more than 20 years," says Ward. "The American Medical Association says GMOs are OK to eat because there is no evidence of negative effects on health in the scientific research—and the World Health Organization agrees."
As David Feder, R.D.N. and a nutrition journalist, explains, the risk of GMOs being harmful depends on what is modified and how, since not all GMOs are alike. "In the decades of testing GMOs for possible production, only one case showed a modification to express a gene that resulted in creating a protein with a potential allergen risk," he says. This modification was of a soybean that expressed the gene of a Brazil nut. Of course, all work stopped immediately and all product in the lab was destroyed. Feder adds that it takes years of study and testing before a GMO crop is allowed to be commercialized and enter our food supply. "As for the safety of GMOs for babies and children, since the one extremely remote risk is that of a potential reaction to an unfamiliar protein in a GMO plant, the risk is on a par with that of any potential allergen from that same product," he says.
It's worth noting that major health organizations including The World Health Organization, The American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are all in agreement that there's not enough evidence to support the claim that GMOs are harmful. However, John Bagnulo, M.P.H., Ph.D., food scientist and director of nutrition for Functional Formularies, notes that because they are unnatural and involve a cross-breeding of DNA, they do have a negative impact on our microbiome, the good and bad bacteria in our gut.
One study, published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology, analyzed the blood levels of women and their unborn children and discovered the presence of Bt toxin, a bacterium that produces proteins toxic to insects. "Genetically modified foods are the only source of this Bt toxin," says Dr. Bagnulo. With Bt toxin, crops can protect themselves from insects without external pesticides.
Another study, published in Environmental Sciences Europe, aimed to unearth possible health impacts of Bt toxins and other residues in genetically engineered soybean plants. Researchers discovered several issues that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which authorized the import of genetically modified soybean plants, overlooked. One being how herbicide residues interact with Bt toxin (possibly causing enhanced toxicity) and another being the allergenic enhancements caused by Bt toxins in an already allergen-prone legume. Overall, the study highlighted key evidence of several regulatory issues with the genetically engineered soybean plants and their potential effects on humans.
The bacteria in our microbiome are especially important for a growing baby, as they play a role in immune system maturation, neurological development, endocrine system function, food tolerances (food sensitivities and allergies), digestive function, and almost every other aspect of human health, explains Sarah Morgan, who holds a masters of science in functional nutrition and is the founder and CEO of Buddies in my Belly. Morgan says the levels of Bt toxins and other herbicides or pesticides sometimes found in GMOs can have a negative impact on a baby's developing nervous system and microbiome (which regulates 70 percent of immune system function for life).
There are only 10 crops that are approved by the USDA to be genetically modified, and they are corn, soybean, cotton, potato, papaya, squash, canola, alfalfa, apple, and sugar beet. However, it's worth mentioning that GMOs can be digested through eating any animal product where the animal was fed one or more of these crops. This, explains Jennifer Kaplan, who teaches Introduction to Food Systems at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California, results in the vast majority of our conventional foods produced here in the U.S. being contaminated at some level with genetically modified ingredients. "Most processed foods contain corn and/or soy ingredients and almost all conventional dairy products use milk from cows fed genetically modified corn, soybeans, and/or canola meal," she says.
According to Tim Durham, M.D., a farmer and assistant professor of agronomy and agricultural sciences at Ferrum College in Southwest Virginia, consumer "right to know" has generally guided labeling efforts. "Historically, this has been up to the states, however, federal authorities quickly realized that state-by-state regulations were unworkable," he explains. "As such, the USDA is currently working on a national labeling standard." Still, there are many issues still to be addressed such as what consists of a true GMO in the first place. "Labeling has historically been associated with risk—like the presence of shellfish or peanuts as allergens—yet there are no valid health concerns associated with GMOs," Dr. Durham adds.
First thing's first: Your child is likely perfectly unharmed by GMOs, as there's no evidence that can prove otherwise. While you can avoid the highest genetically modified crops—corn, soy, cotton, canola, papaya, sugar beets, zucchini, and yellow squash—in an effort to minimize your baby's exposure, it would be extremely difficult to be 100 percent GMO-free. "Unless you eat only organic foods, including packaged foods, it's impossible to avoid GMOs completely," says Melanie Potock, a pediatric feeding specialist. She suggests buying organic when it's available and you can afford to and continue to educate yourself as more information becomes available about GMOs.