Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why Are Food Allergies on the Rise? Part 1: GMOs

If you've worked with kids lately, or if you're a new parent yourself, then I'm sure you know all about this epidemic of food allergies.  According to a 2011 study, 8% of American children under 18 have at least one food allergy, and that is up from 4% in 2009 (1).  Peanut allergies in particular have been on the rise.  In one Midwestern county, the prevalence of peanut allergies in children tripled between 1999 and 2007 (2).  But you don't need numbers to realize it's a problem.  Just spend a day in a school cafeteria.  Or a summer camp.  Just enter an elementary school classroom at all and you'll hear about it; the concern is clearly growing.  Dairy may be the most common allergy, and it seems kids can have a reaction just looking at a peanut, but there are others to worry about as well, including wheat, eggs, soy, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish.

But it wasn't always this way.  When I was a youngster, I don't recall ever hearing about another kid having a food allergy.  Maybe the most I ever heard was that a classmate was lactose intolerant.  But there was no mention of peanuts.  Nobody had a wheat allergy.  Nobody went into anaphylactic shock at the mercy of a pistachio.  So what gives?? Why are food allergies exploding?

Well, sadly I don't think we know the answer to that question.  Much has changed in the food and health world over the past few decades, so we have many likely culprits.  Over these next few posts, I'll be exploring the options, in a sort of thinking-out-loud fashion.  Excuse me if what follows turns into an incoherent mess.

Genetically Modified Organisms
This seems to be a hot topic right now.  Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals that are created through gene splicing techniques.  This merges the DNA from different species, creating a new variation of a species that wouldn't be possible through traditional crossbreeding.  Example.  Say biotech giant Monsanto finds a bacteria that naturally resists an herbicide like Round Up.  (They did.)  Then they isolate the gene that allows that bacteria to resist the pesticide, and they splice it into corn.  (Again, they did.) Now they have a genetically modified strain of corn that resists Round Up.  Let's call it Round-Up Ready corn.  Now we can grow mass quantities of corn and spray mass quantities of Round-Up on it to kill those pesky things like weeds and bugs, while leaving the corn unaffected.  Yes, believe it or not, true story.

The following foods have been approved to be genetically modified:  alfalfa, canola, corn, cottonseed, papaya, soy, sugar beets, and green/yellow summer squash (3).  You may say, well, that's only 8 foods, that's not that bad.  But canola, corn, cottonseed, soy, and sugar beets are nearly ALWAYS genetically modified, and they're found in nearly ALL processed food.  You'd be hard-pressed to find anything in a box or a bag that doesn't contain at least one of these, just look next time you're shopping.

So how do you know if what you're eating contains GMO ingredients?  It's not easy.  Companies aren't required by the FDA to label a product as GMO, contrary to the wishes of the American people.  So if you want to know, you've gotta be a detective and read the ingredient list.  Or, if you want to make it easier on yourself, you can buy organic.  Any food certified organic is free of GMOs.  In addition, apparently, GMO fruits and veggies must be labeled with a 5-digit code beginning with an 8, rather than the conventional 4-digit code.   I've yet to see one of these for sale, but no doubt it's coming.

But the worst part... we don't even know if eating this stuff is safe.  There are some people claiming that the studies have been done and they've been swept under the rug to hide the incriminating evidence (4).  Who knows if there's any truth to that.  Then there was this recent study from France, showing that rats eating GMO corn developed breast cancer at a far greater rate than control rats fed non-GMO corn (5).  And of course, biotech companies like Monsanto swear by their safety.  It's no different than regular corn, they say.

But the fact remains... GMO foods are a science experiment.  Nobody in the history of the earth has consumed anything like this, and we'd be giving ourselves too much credit as scientists to say "it's just the same as corn".  We're not even close to understanding all the intricacies of how the human body works, let alone how a brand new franken-food is going to interact with said body.  I don't think we know how much we don't know, which is why it's always a good idea to default to evolutionary biology... We're designed to eat plants and animals; we're not designed to eat herbicide and pesticide resistant corn.  We are the subject of a science experiment, and nobody knows how it's going to turn out.

But are GMOs causing food allergies?
Is it possible that the recent spike in food allergies has a link to these genetically modified foods?  It sure is.  The timing works perfectly... GMO foods as we know them today burst onto the scene in the late 1990s (6).  That's just enough time for families to start eating them and start popping out kids with food allergies.  There's no way to know, as of yet, just what GMOs are doing to our health.  But given all that I've said so far, it does seem a bit fishy doesn't it?  Yes, fishy indeed.  One thing is for sure... if I were to have kids today, GMOs would be one of the first things I'd watch out for. 

What are your thoughts, reader(s)?  I'd love to hear your opinion on GMOs.

And stay tuned for the rest of the series.  I'll be discussing all kinds of fun stuff, like antibiotics, medications, and dwarf wheat.  Come on back!


  1. The fact that plants are growing weaker due to selective breeding is enough to want to stop me from eating conventional (and GMO foods). Plants in the wild (and ones that are just healthy in general) are able to fend off attacks from insects and the like, so those plants sprayed with pesticides and are GMOs are turn-offs for me.

  2. I have heard that another factor in this endemic is the use of antibiotics which destroys healthy gut bacteria and also weakens the immune system which in turn makes us more prone to allergies and the effects can be passed on to children if taken while pregnant. I have absolutely no idea if this is true but it is interesting nonetheless.

    1. I've heard of this too, it's called the Hygiene Hypothesis. I haven't looked into it too much, but it makes a lot of sense. I try not to be overly clean because of it, we survived as a species for so long without hand soap, I don't think it's necessary to wash your hands in most cases.