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GMO vs. GE foods: What's the difference?

Nutritionist Rania Batayneh, MPH is the author of the best-selling book, The One One One Diet: The Simple 1:1:1 Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss. She holds a masters degree in public health from the University of Michigan.

With respect to food, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) refer to foods, plants or animals, for which DNA has been altered to create desirable traits such as a resistance to herbicides.

The genetic modification may be either through human manipulation or as a result of traditional plant breeding methods like selective breeding or crossbreeding between plants within the same species. On the other hand, genetically engineered (GE) foods refer to foods for which DNA has been altered by human manipulation, often by inserting genes from unrelated species, to introduce new, desirable traits to that organism; genetically engineered foods occur artificially in a way that would not otherwise happen in nature. This is the key difference between GMOs and genetically engineered foods. Genetically engineered foods are essentially an extension of GMOs.

While GMOs have been around for centuries, the first introduction of genetically engineered food occurred in the '90s. Since then, experts have debated the use of both genetically engineered crops and GMOs in the American food supply. Both GMOs and GE foods have several advantages in strengthening the global food supply, including pest and disease resistance, herbicide tolerance, drought tolerance, cold tolerance and higher crop yields. The nutrition of certain foods can also be boosted, as in the case of golden rice, which has been genetically engineered to include more beta carotene (vitamin A); this offers more nutrition to populations who face a higher prevalence of malnutrition.

According to the FDA, GMOs and GE foods meet the same safety standards as foods from non-engineered crops and have been evaluated for toxicity, allergenicity and long-term safety; as of now, there are no GMO or GE foods on the market that do not meet these standards. Still, some critics argue that GMOs and GE foods have contributed to the increasing prevalence of allergies and that there may be human health risks that we don't yet know about. Others suggest that there are hazards to the environment and its ecosystem: The use of GMOs and GE foods may cause unintended harm to other organisms; gene transfer to an unintended species may occur, unintentionally modifying that species's genome; and pesticide resistance may develop.

What to do

If you're concerned about either GMO or GE foods, look for foods with the voluntary non-GMO label. Either way, I suggest looking at the bigger picture: Shop for a variety of foods that are local, organic and sustainable to ensure that you're getting as many high quality, clean nutrients as possible.

Image: Joanna Poe/Flickr
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