As genetically modified produce makes its way to market this year, experts debate whether these foods are safer to consume than other products.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are back in the news.
That’s because some genetically modified produce is heading for store shelves.
GMO apples and potatoes will be in Midwest produce departments this month.
It’s the start of a 2017 rollout of these types of items. And should provide some food for grocery aisle debate.
GMOs are created in a laboratory when genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal.
The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals, or even humans.
Read more: ‘Vice’ report on genetically engineered crops stirs debate »
If you don’t want to eat GMO food, said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, you have one clear option.
“Organic is one’s only defense,” she told Healthline.
Food that is certified non-GMO is actually another option for concerned shoppers.
“Until recently no fresh produce were GMOs. It was mainly soybeans and corn, which was not available as fresh products,” Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst of the Center for Food Safety, told Healthline.
The vast majority of corn, soy, canola, and sugar beets grown in the United States is now genetically engineered.
These items are often used as ingredients in processed foods. Tests have shown that GMOs are present in many packaged foods, such as breakfast cereals, chips, baking mixes, and protein bars.
Does that present a health danger?
“The contention that GMOs pose no risks to human health can’t be supported by studies that have measured a time frame that is too short to determine the effects of exposure over a lifetime,” said Dr. Robert Gould, president of the board of Physicians for Social Responsibility, in a 2015 interview with Consumer Reports.
Now GMO apples and potatoes will be in grocery store produce bins.
A GMO apple looks like any other except for one salient feature. It won’t turn brown. The company has turned off some of the genes that make them change color.
Here’s the catch, according to Hanson, “The apples are sitting in the store looking white [inside], but may be covered with microbes not covered by genetic engineering.”
He cited food industry arguments that a lot of fruit goes to waste because it turns brown.
“Maybe that’s a good thing because of those other microbes,” Hanson said. “Does it still taste fresh? I don’t know. It’s not that difficult to cut up an apple.”
Potatoes are on their way as well, probably in the form of chips or other processed food, Hanson noted.
Traditionally, apples were preserved by being sprayed with something acidic, such as lemon juice.
Hanson doesn’t know what is done to the Arctic Apples, the name of the supplier. It’s a division of Intrexon, which describes itself as designing biologically-based consumer solutions.
Read more: What should be considered ‘healthy’ on food labels »
Labeling of GMO food remains a hot-button issue.
Not surprisingly, the food industry doesn’t like labels.
When Vermont passed a labeling law last year, the industry responded by backing what they considered to be a weaker national law. Hanson noted that law precluded states such as Vermont from legislating on their own.
However, that action has led to an unexpected consequence.
The new labeling law will require regulations to determine how these rules will work, who will provide oversight, and so on.
But the Trump administration has announced that for every new regulation produced, two old ones must be tossed.
Where that leaves them, nobody knows, Hanson said.
Dealing with the climate in Washington presents a real challenge now, he said.
“Nothing will change immediately. We may have a new law on the kind of labeling, or it may be put on hold,” he said.
“It may be labeling lite,” he added, half joking. “I’d prefer to see something straightforward, like you have on a Snickers bar. But we’re not going to get that from most food companies.”
Hanson said good labeling might be something small printed on the package that a consumer could scan with a phone, “while they’re shepherding three kids through the supermarket.”
Baden-Mayer takes it a step further, noting that the administration will be limited on what regulations it wants on GMO crops.
“I think these extreme tactics would probably hurt farmers who would benefit from FDA rules,” she said. “The whole process may become unbearable … maybe grind to a halt.”
Baden-Mayer acknowledges that eating organic takes more work.
“Don’t buy prepared food. Live near an organic market,” she said.
One thing that drives consumers to an organic approach is children with health problems, including behavioral issues, digestive problems, being on the autism spectrum, allergies, and even cancer.
“When children have health problems, the parents are interested in what can be done to help them,” she said.
That may mean eliminating a food or two or restricting the diet and then adding foods as health improves.
“Lots of parents find organic foods reduce the intensity of their child’s symptoms,” Baden-Mayer said.
She added that it helps to have a holistic physician, someone interested in diet issues.
All in all, the GMO issue remains in flux.
It’s not known whether new products will be introduced with new regulations.
It’s also not known whether these products will have consumer-friendly labeling or whether they’ll be considered a health risk.
Consider Polly’s plight.
A cartoon from 2014 by Ann Tenae shows a parrot on a perch saying, “Polly wants a gluten-free, low sodium, non-GMO cracker.”
Good luck with that, Polly.