Food allergies are increasing especially in children and everyone is wondering why? It is estimated that 1 in 20 children suffer from food allergies and intolerances – especially during infancy or early childhood. Food allergies were rare a few decades ago, but now about 11 million Americans are suffering from them.
Label reading has become a must for lots of parents, trying to avoid the culprits, either real or perceived. One must look at the food supply of the last few decades as a possible cause. What has changed?
One thing that food labels do not tell us is if the food contains a genetically modified ingredient. Some researchers are wondering if the relatively new introduction of genetically modified foods (GM) has anything to do with it. Genetically modified (GM) foods entered the U.S. market in 1994 and It is estimated that 60-70% of processed foods now contain genetically modified ingredients. The most common GM foods are soybeans, corn, and cotton. (Cottonseed oil is a common ingredient in many processed foods.
When a food is genetically modified, new genes are introduced into Its DNA from another organism like a plant, animal, or a bacterium. Genes are expressed through the production of proteins, and in the case of GM foods, new proteins may form. Proteins act as antigens (foreign substances) or in the case of allergies, allergens. Thus, the new proteins formed from the re-engineering may appear as foreign to the body and thus a defense is waged against them by the immune system.
Is there any scientific evidence GM foods may increase the incidence of food allergies? Research has been sparse, but a few observational studies may provide some clues.
- In 1999, an annual study of food allergens in the U.K. found that soy allergies had increased 50% over the previous year. This trend coincided with the first imports of GM soy from the U.S., which led scientists to strongly suspect a connection. Also, protests of GM foods led some markets to remove these foods from shelves and allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis in children decreased to previous rates.
- A Monsanto company study on GM Bt corn (which the company was forced to reveal through legal action) showed that rats who ate it experienced a significant increase in three types of immune system blood cells. Bt corn is a genetically modified organism that has been bioengineered to resist the European corn borer, a crop pest that can cause significant damage to crops. A gene from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis was inserted into corn DNA. This gene produces a toxin known as Bt, that ruptures the intestines of the corn borer and other organisms when it is ingested. Examples of GM crops include Bt-potatoes, Bt-corn, Bt-sweet corn, Roundup Ready soybeans, Roundup Ready Corn, and Liberty Link corn. Genetically modified corn is being used in many familiar foods, including corn meal and tortilla chips. In addition, corn is used to make high fructose corn syrup, which is used as a sweetener in many foods such as soft drinks and baked goods.
- A type of GM potato has been found to damage the immune system of rats. No study has investigated this response in humans.
- Mice fed a diet rich in GM soy had significantly lower levels of pancreatic enzymes, which are needed to break down proteins in the digestive tract. When proteins last longer in the body, they’re more likely to provoke an allergic response.
Most new food additives require extensive testing by the manufacturers to be approved by the FDA before they can be used and appear on the food labels. In the U.S. GM foods are largely exempt from labeling although there is an ongoing debate on whether this should be mandated. This means that the predominant GM crops of canola, soy, and corn can end up in margarines, baby foods, vegetables oils or practically any processed foods that are not labeled organic.
If you’d like to learn more about GM foods, I suggest that you watch a documentary, The Future of Food on Google Video.
- Genetically Modified Foods FAQ (brighthub.com)
- Food Allergy: Why and How It Develops (everydayhealth.com)