Genetically Engineered Foods -- A Source of Rising Food Allergies?
The huge jump in childhood food allergies in the US is in the news often1. But most reports fail to consider a link to a recent radical change in America‘s diet.
Beginning in 1996, bacteria, virus and other genes have been artificially inserted to the DNA of soy, corn, cottonseed and canola plants.
These unlabeled genetically modified (GM) foods carry a risk of triggering life-threatening allergic reactions.
Evidence collected over the past decade now suggests that they are contributing to higher allergy rates. Scientists have long known that GM crops might cause allergies, but there are no tests to prove in advance that a GM crop is safe.2 That‘s because people aren‘t usually allergic to a food until they have eaten it several times.
"The only definitive test for allergies," according to former FDA microbiologist Louis Pribyl, "is human consumption by affected peoples, which can have ethical considerations."3 And it is the ethical considerations of feeding unlabeled, high-risk GM crops to unknowing consumers that have many people up in arms.
UK Experiences Alarming Rise in Soy-Related Food Allergies
The UK is one of the few countries conducting a yearly evaluation of food allergies. In March 1999, researchers at the York Laboratory were alarmed to discover that reactions to soy have skyrocketed by 50% over the previous year.Genetically modified soy had recently entered the UK from U.S. imports. So the soy used in the study was largely GM. John Graham, spokesman for the York laboratory, said, "We believe this raises serious new questions about the safety of GM foods."4
Critics of GM foods often say that the U.S. population is being used as guinea pigs in an experiment. But experiments have the benefit of controls and measurement. In this case, there is neither.
GM food safety experts point out that even if someone tried to collect data about allergic reactions to GM foods, they would likely be unsuccessful. "The potential allergen is rarely identified. The number of allergy-related medical visits is not tabulated. Even repeated visits due to well-known allergens are not counted as part of any established surveillance system."5
Indeed, the Canadian government announced in 2002 that they would "keep a careful eye on the health of Canadians"6 to see if GM foods had any adverse reactions. They abandoned their plans within a year, saying that such a study was too difficult.
Creating New Proteins in a Lab -- Good For Your Health?
The classical understanding of why a GM crop might create new allergies is that the imported genes produce a brand new protein. The novel protein may trigger reactions.
This was demonstrated in the mid 1990s when soybeans were outfitted with a gene from the Brazil nut. Scientists attempted to produce a healthier soybean, but ended up with a potentially deadly one. Blood tests from people who were allergic to Brazil nuts showed reactions to the beans.7 Fortunately, this soy never went to market.
The GM variety that is planted in 89% of U.S. soy acres gets its foreign gene from bacteria (with parts of virus and petunia DNA as well). We can‘t know in advance if the protein produced by bacteria, never before part of the human food supply, will provoke a reaction.
As a precaution, scientists compare the new protein with a database of proteins known to cause allergies. The database lists the proteins‘ amino acid sequences that have been shown to trigger immune responses.
According to criteria recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and others, if the new GM protein contains sequences found in the allergen database, the GM crop is not to be commercialized and additional testing should be done.
Sections of the protein produced in GM soy are identical to known allergens, but the soybean was introduced before the WHO criteria were established, and the recommended additional tests were not conducted.
What If Bizarre Genes Start Transferring To Humans ...
If this protein in GM soybeans is causing allergies, then the situation may be made much worse by something called horizontal gene transfer (HGT). That‘s when genes spontaneously transfer from one species‘ DNA to another. While this happens often among bacteria, it is rare in plants and mammals.
But the method used to construct and insert foreign genes into GM crops eliminates many of the natural barriers that stop HGT from occurring. The only published human feeding study on GM foods ever conducted on GM foods showed that
parts of the gene inserted into GM soy ended up transferring into the DNA of human gut bacteria.
Furthermore, the gene was stably integrated and it appeared to be producing its potentially allergenic protein. So, years after people stop eating GM soy, they may still be exposed to its risky protein, which is being continuously produced within their own intestines.
Genetic Engineering: An Exact Science... Or A Mutation Disaster Waiting To Happen?
Biotech advocates describe the process of genetic engineering as precise, in which genes-like Legos-cleanly snap into place. This is clearly a false premise.
Creating a GM crop can produce massive changes in the natural functioning of the plant‘s DNA. Native genes can be mutated, deleted, permanently turned on or off, or change their levels of protein expression.
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Collateral damage may result in increasing the levels of an existing allergen, or even production of a completely new, unknown allergen within the crop. Both appear to be the case in GM soy.
Levels of one known soy allergen, trypsin inhibitor, were as much as 27% higher in raw GM soy.
Cooking soybeans normally reduces the levels of trypsin inhibitor, but GM varieties appear to be more heat-resistant. Levels in cooked GM soy were nearly as high as those found in raw soy, and up to seven times higher than in cooked non-GM soy.8 This suggests that GM soy allergen may be more likely to provoke reactions than natural varieties.
Another study verified that GM soybeans contain a unique, unexpected protein not found in non-GM soy controls. Scientists tested the protein and found that it reacted with the antibody IgE. IgE in humans plays a key role in a high proportion of allergic reactions, including those involving life-threatening anaphylactic shock. The fact that the unique protein created by GM soy interacts with IgE suggests it might also trigger allergies.
The same researchers measured the immune response of humans to soybeans using a skin-test often used by allergy doctors. Eight people reacted to GM soy. One of these did not react to non-GM soy. The sample size is small. But the implication that some people react only to GM soy is huge, and might account for the increase in soy allergies in the UK.
Eating More Herbicides In The Name Of "Progress"
By 2004, farmers used an estimated 86% more herbicide on GM soy fields compared to non-GM.9 Higher levels of herbicide residue in GM soy might cause health problems. In fact, many symptoms identified in the UK soy allergy study are also related to glyphosate exposure.
The allergy study identified irritable bowel syndrome, digestion problems, chronic fatigue, headaches, lethargy, and skin complaints including acne and eczema, all related to soy consumption.
Symptoms of glyphosate exposure include nausea, headaches, lethargy, skin rashes, and burning or itchy skin. It is also possible that glyphosate‘s breakdown product AMPA, which accumulates in GM soybeans after each spray, might contribute to allergies.
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GM Soy Resists Essential Protein-Digesting Enzymes
The longer proteins survive in the digestive tract, the more time they have to provoke an allergic reaction. Mice fed GM soy showed dramatically reduced levels of pancreatic enzymes.
When protein-digesting enzymes are less available, food proteins last longer in the gut, allowing more time for an allergic reaction to occur. A reduction in protein digestion due to GM soy consumption could promote allergic reactions to a wide range of proteins, not just to the soy. No human studies of protein digestion related to GM soy have been done.
Soy‘s Little-Known Link to Peanut Allergies
There is at least one protein in natural soybeans that has cross-reactivity with peanut allergies.10 This means that for those who are allergic to peanuts, eating soybeans could trigger a reaction.
It is certainly possible that the unpredicted side effects from GM soybeans might increase the incidence of this cross-reactivity. But it is unlikely that it has been researched. GM soy was introduced into the U.S. food supply in late 1996.
We are left only to wonder whether this influenced the doubling of U.S. peanut allergies from 1997 to 2002.
Gambling With Our Health -- For Their Profits
Introducing genetically engineered foods into our diet was done quietly and without the mandatory labeling that is required in most other industrialized countries. Without knowing that GM foods might increase the risk of allergies or which foods contain GM ingredients, the biotech industry is gambling with our health for their profit.
This risk is not lost on everyone. In fact, millions of shoppers are now seeking foods that are free from any GM ingredients. Ohio-based allergy specialist John Boyles, MD, says, "I used to test for soy allergies all the time, but now that soy is genetically engineered, it is so dangerous that I tell people never to eat it -- unless it says organic."11
Organic foods are not allowed to contain GM ingredients.
Buying products that are certified organic or that say non-GMO are two ways to limit your family‘s risk from GM foods.
Another is to avoid products containing any ingredients from the seven food crops that have been genetically engineered: soy, corn, cottonseed, canola, Hawaiian papaya and a little bit of zucchini and crook neck squash. This means avoiding soy lecithin in chocolate, corn syrup in candies, and cottonseed or canola oil in snack foods.
Fortunately, the Campaign for Healthier Eating in America will soon make your shopping easier. This Consumer Non-GMO Education Campaign is orchestrating the cleaning out of GM ingredients from foods and the natural products industry.
The campaign will circulate helpful non-GMO shopping guides to organic and natural food stores nationwide, and provide consumers with regular GM food safety updates explaining the latest discoveries about why "Healthy Eating Means No GMOs".
This article (part 1 of a series) is limited to the discussion of allergic reactions from GM soybeans. The evidence that GM corn is triggering allergies is far more extensive and will be covered in part 2 of this series.
Jeffrey M. Smith is the author of the new publication Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, which presents 65 risks in easy-to-read two-page spreads. His first book, Seeds of Deception, is the top-rated and #1 selling book on GM foods in the world.
He is the Executive Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, which is spearheading the Campaign for Healthier Eating in America. Go to www.seedsofdeception.com to learn more about how to avoid GM foods.
See for example, Charles Sheehan, "Scientists see spike in kids‘ food allergies," Chicago Tribune, 9 June 2006, http://www.montereyherald.com/mld/montereyherald/living/health/
See for example, Carl B. Johnson, Memo on the "draft statement of policy 12/12/91," January 8, 1992. Johnson wrote: "Are we asking the crop developer to prove that food from his crop is non-allergenic? This seems like an impossible task."
Louis J. Pribyl, "Biotechnology Draft Document, 2/27/92," March 6, 1992, www.biointegrity.org
Traavik and Heinemann, "Genetic Engineering and Omitted Health Research"
"Genetically modified foods, who knows how safe they are?" CBC News and Current Affairs, September 25, 2006.
J. Ordlee, et al, "Identification of a Brazil-Nut Allergen in Transgenic Soybeans," The New England Journal of Medicine, March 14, 1996.
Stephen R. Padgette et al, "The Composition of Glyphosate-Tolerant Soybean Seeds Is Equivalent to That of Conventional Soybeans," The Journal of Nutrition 126, no. 4, (April 1996); including data in the journal archives from the same study.
Charles Benbrook, "Genetically Engineered Crops and Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Nine Years"; BioTech InfoNet, Technical Paper Number 7, October 2004.
See for example, Scott H. Sicherer et al., "Prevalence of peanut and tree nut allergy in the United States determined by means of a random digit dial telephone survey: A 5-year follow-up study," Journal of allergy and clinical immunology, March 2003, vol. 112, n 6, 1203-1207); and Ricki Helm et al., "Hypoallergenic Foods-Soybeans and Peanuts," Information Systems for Biotechnology News Report, October 1, 2002.
John Boyles, MD, personal communication, 2007.