The incidence of food allergies in children has been rising over the last several years. We know this as a fact from several studies and surveys, but what no one has been able to pinpoint exactly is the reason. Is it because we are increasingly hygienic? Do children have too few microorganisms in their guts? Is it because parents are withholding certain allergenic foods from their infants? We just don’t have a definite answer, but one new idea is gaining ground: GMO foods could be a part of the problem.
What Are GMO Foods?
GMO stands for genetically-modified organism. It is a laboratory technique that involves taking a gene, or multiple genes, from one organism and inserting it into the DNA, or genetic material, of another organism. This has largely been done with crop foods, and the purpose is to give one crop a certain quality. For instance, GMO corn has been created by inserting genes that make the corn toxic to corn earworm and corn borer. These two pests destroy corn crops and the GMO corn can survive an infestation when natural corn cannot.
Proteins Cause Allergies
Why certain people are allergic to certain foods remains a mystery. What we do know, though, is that the allergens, those substances that trigger allergic reactions, are proteins. For example, seven different proteins in peanuts have been found to be allergens in people allergic to peanuts.
DNA and the genes in DNA code for proteins. They are like instruction manuals that tell cells in the body which proteins to make and how to make them. By inserting new genes in to the DNA of a food crop, it may be possible that that food will start to produce a protein it would not make otherwise. That protein could potentially be a new allergen, or it could be an already recognized allergen, essentially hiding in a food in which it should not exist.
Have GMOs Triggered Allergies?
Several years ago a GMO corn that was not intended to be used in food for human consumption found its way into some taco shells served at a Taco Bell. The corn, called StarLink, was engineered to resist pests and was supposed to be used in animal feed only. A woman eating the contaminated taco shells experienced anaphylactic shock, the most serious type of allergic reaction. The woman was able to rule out everything else she ate that day, but the taco shells.
This woman was not the only one to have the complaint about the contaminated tacos, but the Food and Drug Administration investigated and was not able to confirm the corn was the culprit. The incident spurred a controversy over GMO foods and their potential risks for people, although a definite connection has been hard to prove.
Regulation of GMO Foods
Currently, foods that have been genetically modified are supposed to be screened for any potential allergens before they can be used in food meant for people. Any new proteins found in a GMO food have to be compared to known allergens. If the structure of a new protein is too similar to proteins we know to cause allergies, it could have the same effect.
Most experts agree that it is not the regulated and approved GMO foods that are cause for concern. So far, none that have been approved have been found to contain allergens. What should be troubling is the possible contamination of foods with those that have not been approved for human consumption. What happened with StarLink corn and taco shells was an accident that could be repeated. The GMO corn had been planted close enough to natural corn that they cross-pollinated each other.
While GMO foods will likely remain controversial, there is no evidence that they are responsible for the increase in food allergies overall. Researchers will continue to investigate the safety of GMO foods and the causes of rising food allergies. In the meantime, it is important for everyone, including those with allergies, to be more aware of where our food comes from.