GMO Foods: The Good, the Bad and the Confusing

Depending on your background and personal beliefs, you might hear the acronym GMO and automatically think good. Or you may think the exact opposite. Here's what we can all agree on: The topic isn't so black-and-white, and it's surrounded by plenty of confusion and controversy.

The issue of GMO foods is a complex one. Credit: WLADIMIR BULGAR/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Science Photo Library/GettyImages

In recent years, major brands including Cheerios and Chipotle have sworn off GMOs, arguing these ingredients don't measure up to their standards and may negatively affect their customers' personal health and the health of the planet.

But that's only one side of the story. Let's examine the key things you need to know about when it comes to these foods and ingredients, including the pros and cons of GMOs.

What Is a GMO Anyway?

Genetically modified organisms (which you likely know simply as GMOs) aren't plants, animals or organisms that are found naturally in the world. Rather, they've had their DNA changed in some way.

In most cases, scientists pick and choose the genes they want — say a certain gene from this plant or one from this animal — and move that gene into the cell of another plant or animal to alter its genetic makeup.

GMOs have technically been around for tens of thousands of years, ever since humans began practicing selective breeding. Selective breeding occurs when farmers seek out plants with desirable traits, and then specifically breed those until the plant has changed. For example, tomatoes used to be the size of marbles, but now they're much bigger thanks to the way farmers have bred them over time.

GMOs as we know them today started to take shape in the 1990s, and over the past few decades, consumers have become more aware of (and more confused by) them.

Read more: What Do the Labels Organic, All-Natural, Non-GMO and Fair-Trade Really Mean?

GMO vs. GE

Another acronym you'll hear when talking about GMOs is GE, which stands for genetically engineered. Sometimes, GMO and GE are used interchangeably when talking about foods that aren't 100 percent natural, but that's not exactly right.

Technically, genetic modification is the broader term and refers to a wide range of methods, such as selective breeding mentioned earlier. GEs are another example of genetic modification and are likely what comes to mind when you think about GMOs.

Genetic engineering involves specifically changing an organism's genes through biotechnology. The most common examples of GE crops are soybeans, cotton and corn, many of which are then used to create processed foods stocked on grocery store shelves. Potatoes, squash, apples and papayas are also commonly genetically engineered.

GMOs are used in many everyday foods, so they can be hard to get away from. But should you be trying to avoid them? Let's take a look at the pros and cons of GMOs.

GMO Pro: Bigger Crop Yield

One of the major advantages of GMOs is that they help increase the production rate of crops, which can have a significant impact in countries faced with food shortages and famine. As such, GMO crops can help fight malnutrition around the world, according to a 2016 study published in Theoretical and Applied Genetics.

GMO Pro: Crop Protection

GMOs lead to these bigger yields if plant genes have been altered to be less susceptible to disease. For this to occur, the genetic makeup of a plant needs to be reworked to incorporate a toxin called bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. It helps crops avoid catching certain viruses, boosts the effectiveness of insecticides and is safe for people to consume.

GMO Con: Potential for Allergic Reactions

Transferring genes into an organism means the organism now contains new proteins, which could cause an allergic response where a threat wasn't present before, according to a 2013 study published in Annals of Agriculture and Environmental Medicine.

So maybe you weren't allergic to one kind of tomato before, but after new proteins are added, you may experience a reaction. A 2017 study published in Hong Kong Medical Journal notes that some people who fall in the anti-GMO camp blame GMOs for the increase in food allergies in the United States, especially among children.

Critics of this argument point to the fact that genetic engineering isn't typically used in the most common sources of food allergies: eggs, nuts, dairy and shellfish.

Read more: 21 Foods to Always Buy Organic (Even If You're On a Budget!)

GMO Pro: More Nutritious Foods

One of the main goals in producing GMOs is to create foods that are packed with more nutrients than before. In 2000, for example, scientists developed a crop called Golden Rice that was created specifically to help fight vitamin A deficiencies.

GMO Con: Negative Impact on the Environment

GMOs have been linked to a few environmental concerns. For one, GMOs may become more tolerant of insecticides and herbicides and may lead to crop invasiveness, per a 2017 study published in Environmental Research.

The World Health Organization also notes it's possible for the GMO to move from its crop area into the wild, passing its modified genes along to the natural population. There's also a fear that GMOs increases the use of chemicals in farming.

GMO Con: Risk of Toxicity

Some argue that people who fill their diet with GMOs will be at an increased risk of toxicity and that eating GMOs can increase chances of developing tumors, such as in the lungs, breasts or colon, according to a 2013 study published in Annals of Agriculture and Environmental Medicine.

Hold the freak-out, though: Experts disagree on whether or not people really need to be worried about this. Harvard, for example, reports that research doesn't support claims that GMOs lead to adverse health effects.

Read more: 11 Banned Food Ingredients Still Allowed in the U.S.

GMO Pro: Regulated by the FDA

It may give you some peace of mind to know that GMOs are held to the same safety standards as other foods available to consumers in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency regulate the products to make sure they're safe to eat. The FDA says foods that come from genetically engineered plants are just as safe as non-GE foods.

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