Genetically engineered foods

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Definition

Genetically engineered (GE) foods have had their DNA changed using genes from other plants or animals. Scientists take the gene for a desired trait in one plant or animal, and they insert that gene into a cell of another plant or animal.

Alternative Names

Bioengineered foods; GMOs; Genetically modified foods

Function

Genetic engineering can be done with plants, animals, or bacteria and other very small organisms. Genetic engineering allows scientists to move desired genes from one plant or animal into another. Genes can also be moved from an animal to a plant or vice versa. Another name for this is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

The process to create GE foods is different than selective breeding. This involves selecting plants or animals with desired traits and breeding them. Over time, this results in offspring with those desired traits.

One of the problems with selective breeding is that it can also result in traits that are not desired. Genetic engineering allows scientists to select one specific gene to implant. This avoids introducing other genes with undesirable traits. Genetic engineering also helps speed up the process of creating new foods with desired traits.

The possible benefits of genetic engineering include:

  • More nutritious food
  • Tastier food
  • Disease- and drought-resistant plants that require fewer environmental resources (such as water and fertilizer)
  • Less use of pesticides
  • Increased supply of food with reduced cost and longer shelf life
  • Faster growing plants and animals
  • Food with more desirable traits, such as potatoes that produce less of a cancer-causing substance when fried
  • Medicinal foods that could be used as vaccines or other medicines

Some people have expressed concerns about GE foods, such as:

  • Creation of foods that can cause an allergic or toxic reaction
  • Unexpected or harmful genetic changes
  • Inadvertent transfer of genes from one GM plant or animal to another plant or animal not intended for genetic modification
  • Foods that are less nutritious

These concerns have thus far been unfounded. None of the GE foods used today have caused any of these problems. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assesses all GE foods to make sure they are safe before allowing them to be sold. In addition to the FDA, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulate bioengineered plants and animals. They assess the safety of GE foods to humans, animals, plants, and the environment.

Food Sources

Cotton, corn, and soybeans are the main GE crops grown in the United States. Most of these are used to make ingredients for other foods, such as:

  • Corn syrup used as a sweetener in many foods and drinks
  • Corn starch used in soups and sauces
  • Soybean, corn, and canola oils used in snack foods, breads, salad dressings, and mayonnaise
  • Sugar from sugar beets
  • Livestock feed

Other major GE crops include:

  • Apples
  • Papayas
  • Potatoes
  • Squash

Side Effects

There are no side effects from consuming GE foods.

Recommendations

The World Health Organization, the National Academy of Science, and several other major science organizations across the globe have reviewed research on GE foods and have found no evidence that they are harmful. There are no reports of illness, injury, or environmental harm due to GE foods. Genetically engineered foods are just as safe as conventional foods.

The US Department of Agriculture has recently started requiring food manufacturers to disclose information about bioengineered foods and their ingredients.

References

Hielscher S, Pies I, Valentinov V, Chatalova L. Rationalizing the GMO debate: the ordonomic approach to addressing agricultural myths. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2016;13(5):476. PMID: 27171102 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27171102/.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

US Department of Agriculture website. National bioengineered food disclosure standard. www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/national-bioengineered-food-disclosure-standard. Effective date: February 19, 2019. Accessed September 28, 2020.

US Food and Drug Administration website. Understanding new plant varieties. www.fda.gov/food/food-new-plant-varieties/consumer-info-about-food-genetically-engineered-plants. Updated March 2, 2020. Accessed September 28, 2020.

Review Date: 
8/20/2020
Reviewed By: 
Meagan Bridges, RD, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, VA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.