Genetically modified foods — known as GMs or GMOs — are produced from plants whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory to create combinations that do not naturally occur. GMO examples include corn, soybeans and sugar beets that are then used in many foods as oils or sweeteners.
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The FDA considers "genetic engineering" to be a more precise term for describing the process of creating these modified plants and their subsequent foods, although "GMO" is the more recognized term. Other words to describe these foods could include "genetically modified" or "biotech foods."
How Genetic Modification Works
A genetically-modified organism is an organism whose genetic structure has been altered by adding a gene — through "gene splicing" — that will express a desirable trait. In terms of plants, this new trait could improve a crop's nutritional qualities, make it resistant to herbicides or protect it from pests.
According to literature published on the FDA's website, genetic engineering of plants (and sometimes animals) is often used in conjunction with traditional breeding. Genetic engineering isolates the gene for the desired trait, adds it to a single plant cell in a laboratory, and then generates a new plant from that cell. By narrowing the introduced genetics to one gene from the donor organism, scientists can eliminate unwanted and undesirable characteristics from the donor's other genes.
Foods from genetically-engineered plants were introduced into the U.S. food supply in the 1990s. Cotton, corn and soybeans are the most common examples of GMO crops grown in the U.S., most having been altered to have increased insect resistance, or a tolerance to herbicides.
Genetically Modified Food Examples
Up to 92 percent of U.S. corn is currently genetically-engineered, as are 94 percent of soybeans and 94 percent of cotton (cottonseed oil is used in food products), the USDA shows. The Center for Food Safety estimates that upwards of 75 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves contain genetically-engineered ingredients.
The majority of GMO plants are used to make ingredients for other food products (usually processed foods including crackers, condiments, sodas and more). Examples of GMO crop use include:
- Corn starch in soups and sauces
- Corn syrup used as a sweetener
- Corn oil, canola oil and soybean oil in mayonnaise, salad dressings, breads and snack foods
- Sugar from sugar beets in various foods
- Other major crops with genetically engineered varieties include potatoes, squash, apples, and papayas
Animals may also undergo genetic engineering, but as of March 2019 the FDA has only approved an application for AquAdvantage Salmon, a genetically-engineered Atlantic salmon. The FDA states it will not approve any application related to a genetically-engineered animals for food use unless it deems that the food from the animals is safe for human consumption.
Read More: Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Food
Are GMOs Safe?
The World Health Organization suggests that each genetically modified food should be assessed individually as to their safety, but advises that GMO foods in the international market have passed safety assessments, and that no adverse effects on human health have yet been shown.
Nevertheless, worry about GMOs persists. A peer-reviewed paper published January 2019 in the journal Nature Human Behavior showed that many people are still concerned about them, or oppose the use of genetically-modified foods despite agreement among scientists that they are safe to consume.
A nationally-representative sample of U.S. adults were found to exhibit a behavior where, as an extremity of opposition to, and concern about, genetically-modified foods increased, objective knowledge about science and genetics decreased, but perceived understanding of genetically-modified foods increased. Or as the paper notes, extreme GMO opponents know the least, but think they know the most.
Similar results were obtained in a parallel study with representative samples from the United States, France and Germany.
- Ohio State University Extension: "Understanding Genetically Modified Foods"
- FDA: "Consumer Info About Food from Genetically Engineered Plants"
- USDA: "Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States"
- World Health Organization: "Frequently Asked Questions on Genetically Modified Foods"
- FDA: "Consumer Q&A"
- Center for Food Safety: "About Genetically Engineered Foods""
- Nature Human Behavior: "Extreme Opponents of Genetically Modified Foods Know the Least but Think They Know the Most"
- USDA: "Recent Trends in GE Adoption"