Over the last two decades we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people being diagnosed with food allergies, both in the United States and in most other industrialized nations. According to a 2013 report issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the incidence of food allergies in the U.S. has gone up by an astonishing 50 percent since 1997; and among children, the statistics are even more alarming, as the number of parents reporting that at least one of their kids suffers from a food allergy rose 67 percent over the same time period. Overall, it is estimated that one out of every 13 school-age children will eventually be diagnosed with at least one type of serious food sensitivity, and each year 300,000 kids under the age of 18 will be forced to seek outpatient medical treatment for symptoms related to food allergy attacks. Fortunately, medical professionals and parents alike have become much more aware of the risks associated with food allergies over the past several years, and diagnostic procedures have become more thorough and precise as a result.
Some of the increased prevalence of food allergies can no doubt be explained by these improvements in diagnostic techniques. Because doctors now know what to look for, they are doing a better job of accurately diagnosing and they’re no longer missing what is right in front of them. But there is certainly more going on than this; for some reason the incidences of food allergies have clearly been trending upward since the late 1990s, which coincidentally is also the time when genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were first introduced into the American food chain.
But maybe this is more than just a coincidence.
The Technology of Genetic Modification: Curse or Miracle?
Praise for the wonders of genetic engineering have been sung by food scientists who are working to perfect the techniques of gene transfer and transplantation. With special genetic enhancements, fruits, vegetables and animal products can be raised or grown that are more nutritionally dense, less prone to spoilage or insect attack, more flavorful, less vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, and larger in size—or so the GMO industry has claimed. Despite these apparently beneficial changes, the introduction of genetic sequences into plants or animals can alter the distinctive chemical patterns and signatures of the foods they produce, and this could lead to surprising allergic reactions in the bodies of those who consume these new and unique GMO edibles.
In some cases it can be as simple as the wrong gene showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, if a child with a seafood allergy was to eat a genetically modified tomato containing a gene from a fish (this is a real GMO product), it could trigger an unfortunate immune system response. Standards are now in place that are designed to prevent the transplantation of genes with known allergenic properties into new foodstuffs, but some GMOs entered the food supply before they had been fully tested and vetted and as a result they do actually contain some known allergens.
But the story is much more complex than this. Gene-splicing techniques supposedly allow scientists to insert foreign DNA into food-producing organisms as easily as you would put together a child’s puzzle on your tabletop, but in reality 21st century micro-scale biotechnology is nowhere near this advanced or sophisticated. To a far greater extent than its proponents like to admit, genetic modification creates a new but relatively rough mixture of protein manufacturing genes that can interact and interrelate in unpredictable and troublesome ways. What happens in one gene can potentially affect the expression of every other gene, and the addition of foreign DNA—which in some instances comes from non-food sources like bacteria—into the nuclei of plant and animal cells can cause a species’ native genes to mutate, malfunction, become disabled, over- or under-produce certain vital amino acids and even in some instances produce entirely new proteins that have never before existed on earth. Such unexpected changes could very well produce food products that are highly allergenic, and it is this complicated process of biological transmutation that has many allergy experts so concerned.
These alterations are often subtle and their significance is a source of controversy. Throughout the literature on genetic modification and on the websites that discuss the science involved there is wide disagreement about whether or not GMO foods simply represent different varieties of familiar foods or are actually new substances that can cause unpleasant side effects when consumed. Independent animal tests and human studies seem to confirm that GMO foods can cause allergic reactions more easily and readily than normal varieties of the same substances, but the GMO industry claims its tests prove these substances are completely safe and that the genetic alterations food scientists instigate are not noticeable enough or disruptive enough to stimulate an inappropriate immune response in the body.
At the present time the U.S. Food and Drug Administration supports the assertions of the GMO industry, does not regulate it in any way, and does not require food companies to label food products they sell if they contain GMOs (this labeling is required in European countries). This has not caused the controversy over GMOs to abate, however, and polls have shown that up to 90 percent of the American public believe food products that have been genetically altered should carry labels that state this fact. Unfortunately the ongoing scientific debate between pro- and anti-GMO sources is too arcane and complex for most consumers to untangle, and while many members of the general public may choose to trust and believe one side, for the most part Americans are simply not sure if GMOs are safe or not.
Most people who are uncertain about the risks support labeling because they believe in full disclosure and would like to be able to make informed choices when purchasing food for themselves and their families. The majority of the foods bought in supermarkets these days do in fact contain GMOs, and the only way a consumer can avoid them is to purchase organic products exclusively, which must remain GMO-free in order to obtain their designation.
A Healthy Diet Is a Safer Diet
Needless to say, the possibility that soy, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, milk, nuts, vegetable oils and a variety of other raw or packaged foods might contain hidden allergens either known or unknown is frightening for everyone. For parents it is especially alarming, since the rates of food allergies among children have been skyrocketing and there has been no clear explanation offered for this terrifying trend. If genetic modification of the food supply is indeed a true hidden threat, children who have already been diagnosed with food allergies could face unseen dangers because of the presence of foreign genes in supposedly safe foods, while kids still too young to have tried everything could have unanticipated bad reactions to unfamiliar foods as their diets become more complex. The severest form of allergic reaction, called anaphylaxis, can even be life threatening, so this is not a concern that anyone can or should take lightly.
At the present time we simply don’t know enough about GMOs to say definitively one way or the other if they are responsible for the disturbing increase in food allergies we have seen over the past 15 years. Of course it would be irresponsible to suggest that people should knowingly expose themselves or their children to organic versions of foods they believe they are allergic to as a way to test the hypothesis that genetic modification is the source of the problem. But even beyond the potential allergy risk there are many excellent reasons to go organic whenever possible: it is good for animals, the environment, local economies, and small food producers, and organic products are usually denser in vitamins and other essential nutrients than conventionally produced food items.
Perhaps the science will eventually clears GMOs of all responsibility for the increased incidence of food allergies; or perhaps GMO techniques will improve so much in the future that genetically-modified plant and animal food sources will actually produce consumables that are indistinguishable in every meaningful way from more “natural” varieties. But wise and informed consumers don’t have to wait around for a brighter dawn to break. Organic products are right here, right now, and while they can be a bit more expensive than conventional foodstuffs they represent an investment in health than can bring immense rewards in the long run.