Genetically Engineered Foods Which Support Your Pregnancy Health

Some of the healthiest foods that you can put into your body have been classified by food marketers as being, or containing, so-called “genetically-modified organisms (GMOs)” —one of the most thoughtless terms ever applied to food products. Devised to be somewhat synonymous with the phrase “genetically engineered”, the term GMO actually applies only to an arbitrary subset of genetically engineered goods, because the anti-“GMO” movement is not based on science and reason and thus does not keep up with the latest biotechnology. In previous posts, we have discussed the irrationality of so-called “non-GMO” food and some of the related genetic science, but here we’ll begin by noting that, in terms of what is actually present in foods that you can buy, the classification “GMO” really only applies to a handful of ingredients. Given the increased efficiency that genetic technology provides agriculture, resulting in a decreased carbon footprint (and thus less damage to our climate) and increased production of nutritious food compared with “conventional” agriculture, I anticipate and hope that the number of bioengineered products on your grocery list will increase in the years to come. For today, though, the goal is to discuss a few foods already on the market that contain “GMOs”, and that, consequently, are poo pooed by the promoters of food woo.

Rather than telling you merely that genetically engineered foods merely are safe, I will tell you that the genetically engineered foods that are approved and available for you to buy are excellent — a theme on which I touched in a previous discussion about Golden Rice, which was created through genetic engineering to save the eyesight and lives of millions of people, including many children, whose diets lack beta carotene. Many foods that are not “non-GMO” are foods that you should eat as part of a nutritious diet to promote a healthy pregnancy. While there are also many foods, notably in the processed food section, that are best avoided and happen to include “GMOs”, the bioengineered content is not the reason to avoid them. Similarly, among the various processed foods that are labeled as “non-GMO” (a label whose presence, by the way, correlates very inconsistently with the amounts of “GMO” content in the food, but we’ll save this issue for another post), some of them can be less healthy than their GMO alternatives. This can happen, if, for instance, if a serving of the “non-GMO” product contains more sugar, more sodium, or more saturated fat, or less omega-3 fat or less monounsaturated fat, compared with the comparable processed food that does not have the “non-GMO” label. With this perspective in mind, let’s take a look at a few foods that fall unequivocally under the umbrella of GMOs (for lack of a better term) and are wonderful for health and to eat while you are pregnant.

Arctic Apples: Apples are a source of micronutrients, particularly vitamin C and potassium. Like all fruit, they contain sugar, the main type of chemical compound that your cells break down for energy, but it is not good to load high quantities of sugar into your blood all at once. Since apples contain particularly high quantities of fiber, however, this class of fruit has a fairly low glycemic index. This means that the sugar from the fruit moves fairly gradually from your small intestine into your blood, giving you energy but preventing a blood sugar spike. Consequently, apples are not thought to exacerbate gestational diabetes, meaning diabetes that develops during pregnancy. While most apples do not fall within the umbrella term “GMO”, one brand of apples, called Arctic Apples, are produced with a method called RNA interference (RNAi). This technique, which harnesses a natural process, uses RNA of a particular sequence to blunt the action of a certain gene. This prevents the action of an enzyme in apples called polyphenol oxidase (PPO), which otherwise enables a chemical interaction that turns the apple brown when exposed to oxygen from the air.  This means that the apples do not brown after you cut them and leave them out, so they are more appetizing and less likely to be wasted. The strip of RNA used in the process degrades rapidly, because it is RNA, which is a sitting duck within any cell, since cells are full of enzymes that break up RNA. Consequently, there is no rationale for thinking that the process might be harmful. All that it does is to create apples that have all of the health benefits of any other apples, but do not brown. The only problem with Arctic Apples is that they are difficult to find, as many large food store chains believe that consumers will avoid buying them because they are made with advanced biotechnology. But if you find them, enjoy them!

Corn: Corn is not a necessary food, but it is a perfectly good source of complex carbohydrates, when mixed into a balanced diet. Anti-biotech activists do not like corn —food products generally are not labeled as being “non-GMO” if they contain corn, whereas corn flakes cereal often has a label saying “made partly with genetic engineering— because genetically modified corn is very abundant in North America, so it’s hard for anything with corn to be “non-GMO”, even if it has a label that says it is “non-GMO”. One common genetically engineered corn, called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn, is really a wonderful thing and illustrates really well the irrationality of the anti-GMO belief system. B. thuringiensis is a species of bacteria that produces a protein that is toxic to particular insects that destroy corn and other crops. Consequently, organic farmers often have sprayed copious amounts of this organism onto corn and other crops that these insects destroy, and done so numerous times each season in order to protect the crops with the toxin that the Bt bacteria make. Even in fairly large doses, the toxin is harmless to humans, but kills the insects, because insects’ intestinal tracts are different from ours. Just like you wouldn’t give chocolate to your cat or dog because it is toxic to them, yet the chocolate is not harmful to you (if it is dark chocolate and you don’t eat tons of it), the Bt protein is a toxin to the insect and not harmful to us. Now, in contrast with organic corn that is sprayed with copious amounts of Bt, resulting in high levels of Bt toxin added to the corn numerous times per season, Bt corn (GMO corn) has been modified with the bacterial gene that encodes the Bt toxin. This results in corn that contains Bt toxin (Bt protein), but orders of magnitude less of it compared with the B. thuringiensis-sprayed organic corn. Now, the anti-GMO people oppose Bt corn, because they claim that scientists have messed with nature, modifying corn with a gene that produces a protein that, being harmful to insects, might also harm humans. Yet they will happily eat B. thuringiensis-sprayed organic corn, containing the very same toxin, but hundreds of times more of it. So eat that corn muffin and enjoy it, or better yet a fresh piece of corn on the cob.

AquaBounty Salmon: You may have heard mixed messages surrounding the consumption of fish during pregnancy and there is good reason for this. On one hand, fish is an excellent source of both protein and essential fatty acids, including omega-3 fatty acids that are very healthy during pregnancy both for the mother and her baby. But on the other hand, a lot of fish are contaminated with organic mercury compounds that not only can accumulate in the mother causing neurological problems, but also can be devastating to the development of the brain of the fetus — if the mercury exposure is above certain limits. The mercury comes from industrial contamination and its a bigger problem with certain types of fish than others. Also, importantly, it matters a lot where the fish lives. Farmed fish, in particular, are protected from exposure to mercury, and farm fish include the very first genetically modified animal that has been approved for sale to consumers for food. I am referring to AquaBounty Salmon, which can become a major source of animal protein across the planet, because it grows to full size over several months (less than half the time that other salmon takes) and grows more than twice as large. This also makes it environmentally beneficial. As a good source of proteins and friendly fats — fats that include omega-3 fatty acids and also monounsaturated fatty acids— “GMO” salmon is likely to emerge as the most healthy salmon of all, particularly for pregnant women. So enjoy it.

Canola oil: Canola oil gets a lot of negative press, mostly based on myths and misunderstandings. You may hear, for instance that it contains toxins or trans fats, but the oil is processed in a way that leaves a certain toxin from the canola plant at extremely low levels, meaning levels that are safe. The same goes for any trans fatty acids in the oil, although, if made into margarine via a process called partial hydrogenation, then canola oil, like any other vegetable oil, will produce trans fats. Overall, canola oil is fairly healthy, because it contains high quantities of monounsaturated fatty acids which raise the level of HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) in your blood. Tracking down the objections to canola oil, you’ll find that they’re all linked to one thing, namely that canola is a genetically engineered crop, a GMO. So it’s fine. Don’t worry about it being an ingredient in processed food, nor should you hesitate to cook with it.

Hawaiian papaya: Like apples, papaya is rich in vitamin C and potassium and fiber, but this fruit also is rich in beta carotene (which turns into vitamin A in your body), and —really important during pregnancy— folic acid. Having enough folic acid protects your developing child against neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. Once a ringspot virus nearly rendered Hawaiian papaya extinct, but the crop was genetically engineered to resist the virus and that’s why we still have it. So enjoy that too!

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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