GMOs and Food Allergies

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The protein in peanuts is a common allergen

A lot of people are concerned about the relationship between GMOs and food allergies. GMOs are genetically modified organisms. Oftentimes, they are plants that have had their genes crossed with the genes of other plants or animals, whether to make them hardier or pesticide resistant or to create completely new flavors.

About GMOs and Food Allergies

Simply put, a food allergy occurs when a person's immune system reacts to a protein in a food he or she eats. The allergic response can be as mild as a slight stomach ache or as severe as anaphylactic shock. According a 2007 study by the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, over 30,000 Americans are hospitalized due to food allergies each year.

Since genetically modified foods can contain proteins from other plants in them, one concern is that people will be exposed to substances that trigger their allergies without being aware of it. For example, a tomato plant may contain a protein from peanuts, a very common allergen. The second concern is that if scientists create new proteins and put them into foods people who did not have food allergies before could begin to have reactions.

What Is Being Done

To help prevent allergic reactions to GMOs, scientists perform allergen tests on the new foods they develop. These tests consist of comparing the DNA of these new organisms to the DNA of known allergens. Tests can conclude:

  • The degree to which the protein in a sample is similar to known allergens
  • What will happen to the protein during the digestive process
  • How blood from people that have food allergies reacts to the new genes

One example of the success of this type of testing occurred when a gene from the Brazil nut was added to the soybean plant. Testing showed that an allergen from the Brazil nut became present in the soybeans. Thanks to this test, this crop was never grown commercially.

Continuing Concerns

If the GMO contains a completely new protein that cannot be compared to existing ones, blood tests and animal tests are the only means in which this protein can be checked. It can be difficult at times to determine if these tests will mimic real life situations, which can be a cause for concern.

According to author Jeffrey M. Smith, who wrote the book Seeds of Deception, these tests cannot prove that GMOs are safe for people with food allergies because people would have to eat the food several times to be able to tell if they will have a reaction. He also claims that soy DNA has been damaged by heavy genetic modification, which has created new allergens.

This brings up another concern about GMOs - that modified plants could breed with unmodified plants, creating a brand new species of unknown genetic structure.

Solutions

While genetically modified foods are deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture, people with food allergies may want to err on the side of caution, especially if their reactions are severe. One good thing to do is speak to an allergist and get his or her opinion on the matter.

If a person does not want to worry about the relationship between GMOs and food allergies at all, he or she can avoid eating genetically modified products. Since there is no requirement that modified foods be labeled in the United States, the best way to find them is to look for USDA organic labeling.

Organic foods cannot be modified or contain modified ingredients. Note that labeling with words like "natural" or "naturally derived" does not mean the same as organic and does not mean the food does not contain GMOs.

GMOs and Food Allergies