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GMO Foods: Pediatricians Examine Benefits, Risks & Unknowns

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) analyzes the use of genetically modified organism (GMO)-based foods and their effect on children's health in a new clinical report. In the report, the AAP urges more research and transparency in labeling to help families make informed decisions when shopping for food.

GMO-based products are widely found in the food supply but originate from a narrow list of crops. They are used in the U.S. mostly to make crops resistant to chemical herbicides. As a result, more herbicides are being used in crops and are found in food products, with limited research on long-term health impacts for children.

Research shows that the novel genes introduced into GMO crops pose no unique hazards to human health, according to the clinical report, "Use of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)-Containing Food Products in Children." However, the AAP says evaluation is needed to examine the potential health hazards of the herbicides used in production of GMO foods.

The common weed killer glyphosate, for instance, is often sprayed on crops like corn and soybeans that are genetically engineered to withstand it. Residues of the herbicide sometimes remain on the foods.

Helping families navigate food choices

"A trip to the grocery store can be complicated these days, as parents navigate time and cost barriers, concerns about food allergies and questions about organic food and potential health effects of genetic modification of food," said Steven A. Abrams, MD, FAAP. Dr. Abrams is lead author of the clinical report, written by the Committee on Nutrition and Council on Environmental Health and Climate Change.

"Pediatricians can help answer questions, especially as new regulations for labeling are expected to add to confusion," Dr. Abrams said.

Most of the U.S. products derived from GMO crops are found in ultra-processed foods and animal feed. Although GMO technology can be used to increase the micronutrient contents of foods, there is currently little use of these techniques to increase the nutritional value of foods in the United States.

"A balanced pattern for children emphasizes plant-forward foods and minimizes ultra-processed," said Jaclyn Lewis Albin, MD, FAAP, co-author of the report.

Dr. Albin says good options include fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes (including lentils, beans and peas), herbs and spices, healthy fat sources and whole grains.

"Most of these foods in their whole and minimally processed state are naturally non-GMO," Dr. Albin said.

The AAP recommends:

  • Be aware of the diffrences between organic, non-GMO, and bioengineered labeling. Organic labeling (which also guarantees non-GMO status) and new bioengineered labeling standards and processes are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Non-GMO labeling remains voluntary and typically is managed by third-party organizations. The presence of a non-GMO label does not indicate that unlabeled versions of the food necessarily contain GMO.

  • Focus on a dietary pattern of primarily whole, plant-based foods while minimizing ultra-processed foods.

  • Families who want to completely avoid GMO products can buy organic products or those labeled as non-GMO based on third-party testing. Organic farmers are not allowed to use GMO seeds, GMO animal feed, GMO ingredients or conventional pesticides, antibiotics in farm animals, sewage sludge, and irradiation.

  • Pediatricians can minimize fear-based messaging and support families through shared decision making. Increased cost of some non-GMO foods, especially if also organic, may limit this choice for many families. It is important for caregivers, including pediatricians, to recognize the limitations that economics imposes. They can emphasize the benefits of many minimally processed, affordable foods that are not bioengineered.

  • Schools and hospitals dedicated to the care of children may consider avoiding serving GMO foods to minimize glyphosate exposure when alternatives are available and affordable.

  • Further research opportunities are robust and include the possible long-term health effects of GMO-containing foods, including carcinogenesis, as well as the potential benefits of nutritional modulation of foods using GMO technology.

"The AAP urges transparency of information about food products to help families make informed decisions," Dr. Albin said.

"A pediatrician can help cut through any confusion and support families with practical guidance about what goes in the grocery cart. I find it easiest to focus on what we should feed children rather than what to avoid—and there are many nourishing options."

Clinical reports created by AAP are written by medical experts, reflect the latest evidence in the field, and go through several rounds of peer review before being approved by the AAP Board of Directors and published in Pediatrics.

More information

12/11/2023 12:00 AM
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright @ 2023)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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