Food allergies are on the rise, a well-known fact, but so too are genetically-modified (GMO) foods. Several countries that are major food producers, including the U.S., have been producing more and more foods that have been genetically modified. This leads to some obvious questions: Are GMO foods causing more food allergies? Are they more allergenic than non-GMO foods? The answers have been hotly debated, but a recent study has concluded that the answers are no.
Natural Proteins Cause Allergies
The culprits in food allergies are what we call allergens, and allergens are proteins that are naturally found in foods. Different people may be allergic to different proteins, even in the same food. These proteins exist in foods whether they have been genetically modified or not. The question over allergenicity and GMO foods asks if the process of modifying the food could create new substances that could cause allergic reactions.
Genetically Modifying Foods is Specific
The problem with the idea that modifying a food’s genes could create new allergens is that the process is very specific. When scientists manipulate the genes of a plant, they know exactly what genes they are inserting or deleting and what proteins will be made as a result of that manipulation. In other words, there are no surprises.
The idea that GMO foods could cause new allergies may have originated with an incident that occurred at a Taco Bell in 2000. A woman ate tacos and experienced anaphylaxis. Later, she was able to determine that the corn taco shells caused the attack by eliminating other possibilities. It was then found that the shells had GMO corn in them that was not supposed to be in any human food. The Food and Drug Administration investigated the incident and could not link the GMO corn to her attack. Nevertheless, the idea that GMO food could cause a surprise allergic reaction took off.
Study Shows No Evidence GMO Foods are More Allergenic
The recent paper that concluded GMO foods are not more allergenic than other foods and that they do not cause food allergies was actually a review of thousands of studies. These studies tested GMO foods for allergenicity, a process used for all new GMO foods before they are commercialized. The foods are assessed by determining the new proteins expressed by the modified food and whether or not they are allergenic.
The conclusion of the extensive review was that GMO foods are not more allergenic than the natural counterparts. The reviewers also point out that it is important to note that someone allergic to a food, like soy for instance, will have a reaction to natural, unmodified soy and to GMO soy, and that both should be avoided. The review found no evidence that someone without a food allergy would have a reaction or develop an allergy after eating GMO foods.
Genetically-modified foods are controversial and will likely continue to stir up passionate debate. This one issue over allergens, however, can be put to bed, at least until any additional evidence comes up in future studies.