Anyone with a Netflix account over the last few years has noticed an uptick in documentaries questioning the safety, healthfulness and sustainability of America’s food supply. This month, we asked the Docs your questions about the effects of eating meats and vegetables that have been genetically or hormonally altered, as well as some suggestions for organic buys.
Q: Currently pending the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval is a genetically modified salmon, a larger, faster-growing version of what is considered a very healthy fish. Is there any reason, medically, to not trust the FDA’s expected conclusion that these are safe to eat?
A: You might be right to question how carefully the FDA has looked at this—we have three big questions, in fact—but first let’s look at the government agency’s approval process. The company involved with the salmon, AquaBounty, has conducted most of the research; the FDA only reviews their research. We think the FDA needs to conduct its own research, independent of the company. Why?
First, the problem with manipulating growth hormones in salmon is that it may increase the fish’s insulin-like growth factor (IGF), which is associated with an increased risk of cancer and other diseases. Second, the current salmon on the market has little mercury due to its size, eating habits, habitat and life span. Will this new salmon have more or less mercury in its tissues?
Finally, will the genetically modified salmon, raised in farm environments, continue to avoid the levels of corn and soy meal that most other farmed fish eat, thus keeping up its reliably healthy levels of DHA omega-3 oil?
Those are our biggest concerns for the FDA—write ’em and ask the questions yourself. If they get enough of these questions, maybe they will ensure that Salmon 2.0 is still great-tasting and great for you.
Q: We’ve been eating genetically modified vegetables for years. Why are modified animals only now getting close to market?
A: Genetic modification, also known as “recombinant-DNA technology,” was first applied in the 1970s. Plants, animals or microorganisms that been have changed through genetic engineering are termed genetically modified organisms or GMOs.
Bacteria were the first organisms to be genetically modified. It was easier to change a one-cell organism with relatively few genes in its DNA than the multiple genes of a many-celled animal or plant.
Bacteria reproduced wildly in the controlled conditions of a Petri dish or vat, and the safety of the DNA changes could be assessed relatively quickly. Modified bacterium genes have been used to substitute for medicines.
The next step in difficulty was to modify plants, say for insect protection, herbicide resistance, virus resistance or tolerance to less water. Genetically modifying animals for predetermined traits such as disease resistance or enhanced growth has required more time and expense to determine if the animals are normal in life span and if the characteristics of their DNA doesn’t change the DNA of the people eating the animal or the DNA of bacteria in their intestines.
So far, such animals mostly have been used for research. Because of the necessary investments, and because of ethical issues in creating modified animals, GMO meats have not appeared as rapidly as GMO plants and grains.
Q: When we eat meat that has been injected with hormones, how does it affect us?
A: Hormones from meat and even milk can increase levels of IGF associated with a 2.4-fold greater risk of breast, prostate and other cancers, studies have shown.
We know that children consuming the most animal products are more likely to enter puberty seven months sooner than the group consuming the least. Scientists mainly attribute this to hormones such as estrogen and testosterone injected into cows, meant to increase weight or milk production. Evidence links the use of these hormone additives in livestock to obesity, diabetes, thyroid disease, endometriosis and infertility among human adult consumers. A couple of points of advice:
• For parents of growing kiddos, organic milk may be worth a splurge.
• Buy the leanest cuts of meat—hormones tend to hang out in fat cells.
• Want to take it a step further? Choose only cuts labeled “no antibiotics added” or “certified organic.”
It’s smart to watch your intake of red meat, anyway. More than one 4-ounce portion of all red meat per week increases your heart disease, cancer and brain dysfunction risks, so we recommend that you limit red meat in your diet.
Q: For environmental reasons, I would like to buy organic when possible, but so many of the vegetables seem overpriced. Are there any good organic buys?
A: Except for very young infants, and those who are pregnant or very frail, organic doesn’t seem to make a health difference or a difference in the nutrients you get. Why? We don’t know yet. But buying organic does help you avoid pesticide residues, and it certainly helps our environment in the long run.
Most cost-effective, if you exclude your time investment, is growing your own vegetables or herbs. Cutting back on your red meat intake will expand your budget for organic vegetables. One caveat: Whether you buy organic or not, it is always crucial to thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables to eliminate pesticides and bacteria.
Q: Are there any vegetables and fruits that you would advise buying organic only?
A: Yes, and depending on your life stage (see above) there are times to overspend on organic—you may note that, sadly, those are also some of the times when budgets are the most strapped. The Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) compiles a list of the foods most commonly contaminated with pesticides and residues—so we recommend you go organic with the following.
Sweet bell peppers