Does Your Body Know You’re Eating Genetically-Modified Foods?

Yes, according to a new study that could have enormous impact on studies of cross-species communication, predator-prey relationships, and co-evolution.

First, let’s take a trip down memory lane for a brief refresher in high school biology.  Since 1958, molecular biologists have relied upon the Central Dogma to outline the rules of transfer of biological sequential information.  As you may remember from high school biology, DNA makes RNA makes protein.   In special cases, RNA makes DNA, RNA makes RNA, and DNA makes protein.  But protein doesn’t make protein, protein doesn’t make RNA, and protein doesn’t make DNA, or so says the Central Dogma.

Parsing complex studies and understanding the pathways of human DNA is an incredibly complex task.  Even if you are able to do so, it’s extremely difficult to write about such science at a level that laypeople (like myself) can understand.  Today in The Atlantic, Ari Levaux manages to do exactly that in his story, “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Food.”  As a lover of analogies, I admire the way Levaux compares our current understanding of genetics to ordering pizza:

The Central Dogma resembles the process of ordering a pizza. The DNA knows what kind of pizza it wants, and orders it. The RNA is the order slip, which communicates the specifics of the pizza to the cook. The finished and delivered pizza is analogous to the protein that DNA codes for.

We’ve known for years that the Central Dogma, though basically correct, is overly simplistic. For example: Pieces of microRNA that don’t code for anything, pizza or otherwise, can travel among cells and influence their activities in many other ways. So while the DNA is ordering pizza, it’s also bombarding the pizzeria with unrelated RNA messages that can cancel a cheese delivery, pay the dishwasher nine million dollars, or email the secret sauce recipe to WikiLeaks.

One of the primary arguments in favor of the safety of genetically-modified food — the argument that “gene transfer” moves in one direction — has relied on the Central Dogma.  In simple terms, the FDA has trusted the basic idea that when you eat a piece of fruit, that fruit’s genetic material is not able to effect your genetic material.

But the new findings turn this argument on its head.  Lead by  Chen-Yu Zhang of Nanjing University, the Chinese researchers identified microRNA belonging to genetically-engineered plants (such as rice and cabbage) in human blood and tissue.  MicroRNA are fragments of RNA (the messenger between DNA and proteins) that typically silence or repress certain proteins by binding to and destroying the RNA that would have created that protein.  Indeed, the plant microRNA was found to inhibit a protein in human blood, “suggesting that microRNAs can influence gene expression across kingdoms,” writes Cristina Luiggi in her article, “Plant RNAs Found In Mammals,” published by The Scientist: Magazine of the Life Sciences.

Take a moment to note that ‘kingdom’ is the broadest of the seven major divisions of taxonomy.  We’re not talking about species or genus or family or order or class or phylum; we’re talking about genetic transfer across kingdoms — from vegetable to animal.  This is big news in the science world.

If the results of this study are verified, gene transfer is more complicated than humans ever imagined.  When you eat a piece of fruit, the genetic matter of that fruit (microRNA) is, in fact, communicating with — and influencing — your body’s genetic make-up (via protein inhibition).

Are genetically-modified foods unsafe?  The truth is, we don’t know.  We won’t know for several generations, since animal studies suggest that the full effects of consuming genetically-modified foods are not realized until the third generation of consumers.

But while we wait for science to catch up, age-old wisdom tells us, “You are what you eat.”  Today, Americans eat the same food that has been designed to make our cows gain as much weight as quickly as possibly: genetically-modified corn and soy.  And it has: cows that eat GMO corn and soy feed gain more weight faster than cows ever have in agricultural history.  We humans eat this same GMO corn and soy, and some of us even eat the cows raised on a diet of GMO corn and soy.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that this would make us fat, too?  And it has: American obesity has reached an all-time high.

In the meantime, the European Union, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, and other countries require genetically-modified foods to be labeled.  Labeling works on multiple levels, because it also means that special care must be taken to ensure that GMO foods do not contaminate non-GMOs.  With no real need to separate the two, the United States’ regulations on GMO-contamination are inevitably less strict.  In fact, because of this, in 2007, Europe rejected shipments of U.S. rice after discovering that the U.S. rice contained strains of engineered genes that had never been approved for human consumption — neither by the E.U. nor by the U.S.

UPDATE 1/18: Both Slate and the blog at Scientific American have published rebuttals to Levaux’s piece. 

My personal view is that, as American consumers, we should be informed about the contents of our food — that is, whether we are spending our money on genetically-modified food or not — so that we can make the decision for ourselves.

What about you?  Take the poll below to share your thoughts:

Photo Credit: I love the Tim Burton-esque photo accompanying Levaux’s Atlantic article (Dirk Ercken for Shutterstock).

Why The PepsiCo Mouse Story Is Scare-Tactic Journalism

If you have a weak stomach, feel free to skip this story.  In November of 2009, Ronald Ball of Wisconsin purchased a can of Mountain Dew from a vending machine.  Ball claims he took a swig from the can, felt ill, and poured out the contents of the can to find a mouse carcass.  As Ball’s story goes, he sent the mouse to PepsiCo at their request, and they destroyed the evidence.  He’s now suing PepsiCo.  The story was first reported by MadisonRecord.com in July 2010.

Though the lawsuit has been unfolding for more than a year, it’s just now gaining mainstream publicity due to PepsiCo’s stomach-churning defense.  Experts for PepsiCo argue that Ball’s claim must be false because after 30 days in a can of Mountain Dew, the mouse would have morphed into a “jelly-like” substance due to the acidic content of Mountain Dew.

The response of most outlets has been something along the lines of “If Mountain Dew can eat away the carcass of a mouse, what is it doing to the inside of your body?”  There are many reasons not to drink Mountain Dew and soft drinks in general (one of which I wrote about yesterday) but their acidity levels is one of the least causes for concern.

Mountain Dew’s acidic quality is probably due to concentrated orange juice and citric acid — the only natural ingredients it has.  Many natural, healthy foods and drinks are acidic.   Yes, acidic liquids can disintegrate bones and teeth, but that’s why we brush our teeth and don’t gargle with them.  A healthy human body is used to ingesting acidic substances.  In fact, our own stomach acid has a pH of 2.00 as compared with Mountain Dew’s 3.22.  As this pH chart shows, lime, lemon, and cranberry juice are more acidic than most soft drinks.  While soft drinks tend to hover at the top of the chart, other fruit juices, teas, and coffee are distributed throughout.

I hate to say this, but a mouse carcass in a variety of citrus juices would probably meet the same “jelly-like” fate.  That doesn’t mean your daily glass of orange juice is the root of your health problems.

PepsiCo is no angel and shame on PepsiCo for destroying evidence.  If Ball is lying, PepsiCo could probably have won this case without resorting to destruction of evidence.  Though it seems unlikely that an in-tact mouse made its way into a can of Mountain Dew, PepsiCo’s destruction of evidence makes me wonder.

Their defense regarding the disintegration of the mouse, however, is a legitimate explanation that does seem to debunk Ball’s claims.  PepsiCo is savvy enough not to admit something incriminating — and acidic content is not incriminating.

Disagree?  Leave a comment!

Welcome!

The United States is facing an unprecedented crisis in public health. Americans are more ill than they have ever been in history. Recent studies predict that by 2020, more than 80 percent of American men and more than 70 percent of American women will be overweight or obese. Not only are Americans as a population more ill than they have ever been, but the neediest among us are suffering most of all.

The disparity in health among social classes is growing rapidly. The gap in premature death rates between the poorest and richest Americans has almost doubled since 1980.  This disparity begins in the womb — low socioeconomic status is strongly linked to low birthweight — and the disadvantages continue throughout life. In 2009, 600,000 of Chicago’s 3 million residents lived in urban neighborhoods with limited or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, new studies are pulling back the curtain on food deserts, and challenging the old assumption that poor people choose unhealthy food voluntarily.  In reality, they often do not have access to healthier options. In America today, the best predictor of health is social class.

Food is one part of the health equation, but it is only one part. Wellness is about more than diet and exercise. It’s about our daily patterns and activities. It’s about exposure to toxins and chemicals. It’s about education, and awareness.

WELLNESS & EQUALITY is a progressive health blog.  Health, at it’s core, is simple. Our modern world, however, is complex; simple, natural living has become nearly impossible without thoughtful effort. The goals of this blog are to bring awareness to contemporary health concerns, including health-related inequalities, and to encourage a conversation about how we can alter the fate of millions of Americans — including ourselves.