Is Your Immune System Confused? A Look at GMO Foods

By: Kristen Harding M.D.

Most people have heard the reports that food allergies are on the rise in recent years.  One thing that may be playing role in this is genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Since 1996, Americans have been eating genetically modified ingredients in most processed foods. The main foods affected are corn, soybeans, canola, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, and small amounts of zucchini and yellow squash.

We all know how pervasive corn and soybean products are in processed foods. Genetic engineering allows genes that would not typically be part of a species to be inserted into the organism’sDNA(i.e. adding jellyfish genes to wheat so it glows when it needs water.) The most common traits to be inserted are herbicide tolerance (such as Round-Up ready soybeans) or genes that cause a plant to produce its own pesticide (such as Bt, a bacteria gene, inserted into corn and cotton.) Genetic engineers also insert “marker genes,” such as antibiotic resistance genes, to help determine if the cells have taken up the newDNA. The good bacteria in our digestive system have been found to take up these gene mutations. This could have huge implications in antibiotic resistance down the road.

When genes from one species are inserted into another there are many unwanted and even unknown effects.  Some plant proteins are changed which can make them more allergenic. Several genetically modified plants make proteins that look like some known allergens, thus confusing the immune system. Round-Up Ready soybeans contain a protein sequence that looks the same as shrimp allergen, Round-Up Ready canola has one that looks like dust mite allergen, and Bt corn has a sequence that matches egg yolk allergen.

Soy allergy surged 50% in Great Britainafter the introduction of genetically modified soy and cooked GM soy was found to contain seven times the amount of a known soy allergen. The same type of thing has happened with Bt cotton. Farm workers would often react with skin rash, itching, and respiratory systems when working in fields that had been sprayed with Bt. The same reactions have occurred in cotton workers in India when the Bt gene was engineered into the actual plant (not sprayed).

GMO foods can wreak havoc in multiple ways:  they can form new antigens (molecules that cause the body to react), they can transfer genes (antibiotic resistant genes have been transferred to gut bacteria), they can cause protein changes in the plant structure, they can turn on or off other genes in the organism, and herbicide tolerant crops contain more herbicide residues. One example is that the brand new proteins that are created can look so similar to other proteins that our immune system may mistake them and attack. This can lead to food allergies and autoimmune diseases.

The scariest part of all of this is that the stance of our government is that biotech foods are safe and do not have to be labeled. The FDA does not require safety studies at this time (even though many FDA scientists have warned that GMO foods may promote allergens, toxins, nutritional deficiencies, and new diseases that may not be initially apparent). Many European countries refuse to accept American produce for fear it contains GMO ingredients.

In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) stated that, “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with genetically modified (GM) food,” including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. The AAEM has asked physicians to advise all patients to avoid GM foods.

So how do we do this?  Well, we start by working to avoid processed foods and eating organics. Sadly, however, it is going to be increasingly difficult for organic farmers to avoid GMO contamination due to drifting pollen from nearby fields that are growing GMOs, the work of bees, or contamination of seeds. But we do need to support these practices and speak out for better policies.

There is a lot of research to be done before these altered products should be released into our environment.  Both Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have committed to keeping GMOs out of their store brand products.  You can download a shopping guide from the Institute for Responsible Technology at to help you evaluate other products. My body is confused enough on a day to day basis; I really don’t need GM foods playing tricks on my immune system.


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