x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

How to distinguish modified, conventional and organic food

What you need to know about genetically modified foods - and a simple method to identify them.

Genetically modified apple foods GMO iStock
Genetically modified apple foods GMO iStock
Modifying the DNA of nature is certainly adding a science fiction twist to one of the oldest psychological debates: nature versus nurture. The product of such modification comes today in the form of genetically engineered crops. Food, it seems, is growing in size.The issue with genetically modified (GM) food is two-fold. First, what exactly are we "nurturing" when we consume GM foods, in terms of their effect on our health? And secondly, seeing as an apple is no longer just an apple and potentially not keeping the doctor away, shouldn't the nature of all food be clearly labelled so we can make a conscious choice between eating natural foods or genetically "nurtured" food products?

Fierce debate rages on both sides of the fence but leaving the agricultural supply, business, moral, ethical, environmental and purist arguments aside, the question remains: to what extent are we what we eat?

It is a deeper understanding of this relationship between food consumed and our biology that is necessary to accurately evaluate the GM effect, if any. Are we merely digesting proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals present in food, or are we digesting at a deeper cellular level, inclusive of the information encoded within DNA and subsequent RNA of food?

A study published in the journal Cell Research (September, 2011), conducted by the Jiangsu Engineering Research Centre for microRNA Biology and Biotechnology at Nanjing University in China provides us with a surprising discovery. Scientists found that not only nutrients but actual "plant microRNAs were present in the sera and tissues" of the animals they were studying, all of which have consumed GM foods.

Crucially, microRNAs, or miRNAs, are responsible for turning on or shutting down certain genes. They have also been identified as key components in several major diseases including cancer, Alzheimer's and diabetes.

The study demonstrated that miRNAs in crops bind to a subject?s organs, tangibly changing the behaviour of cells in the organ.

It appears we are what we eat, literally, digesting and downloading information from our food. If these findings are accurate, then engineering plant DNA essentially implies that through its consumption, we are also recoding our own DNA and changing our biology, the effects of which have been linked to diabetes and cancer to name but a few less than desirable effects.

Given this research, it seems unthinkable that there are no legal requirements for all GM foods to be labelled as such. The EU does impose more stringent labelling than the rest of the world; however, this does not include meat or dairy that has been fed GM crops. Foods from the US fall even shorter and at present there are no standard legal requirements that a food must state whether it is derived from GM crops.

This leaves consumers here in the UAE particularly vulnerable, given the vast importing of food and food products. Currently, the only way to be absolutely sure that you are not eating food products containing a GM ingredient is to choose certified organic.

However, for fresh produce, a little investigation in the supermarket will uncover vital information as Dr Frank Lipman, an author and internationally recognised expert in integrative and functional medicine, explains. The stickers attached to fruit and vegetables show how it was grown and from this code you can determine whether the fruit was genetically modified, organically grown or produced with chemical fertilisers, fungicides or herbicides.

Here is what you need to know

If there are only four numbers in the code, the item was grown conventionally or traditionally, with the use of pesticides. The last four letters of the code are simply what kind of vegetable or fruit you are holding. An example: all bananas are labelled with the code 4011.

If there are five numbers in the PLU code, and the number starts with 8, then the item is a genetically modified fruit or vegetable. A genetically engineered banana would be 84011.

If there are five numbers in the PLU code, and the number starts with 9, then the item was grown organically and is not genetically modified. An organic banana would be 94011.

If you want to decipher the origin of processed foods such as cereals and other products, there?s an app for that! They are usually US-focused but as we have so many American brands in our shops here, they prove very informative. For the best of them, visit www.foodrevolution.org/blog/non-gmo-apps

- Laura Holland is a well-being consultant and nutritional therapist. Visit www.beutifulyou.co.uk