Understanding Genetically Modified Foods

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Have you ever wondered where food comes from? When we think about it, a picture of a farmer planting seeds often comes to mind. But did you know that some seeds are genetically altered in a laboratory before being planted? These seeds are called genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and they grow into genetically modified (GM) foods. Read on to learn more about GMOs and GM foods.

What are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?

GMOs are organisms (like plants, animals or microorganisms) whose genetic material (DNA) has been changed. 

GMOs have their genetic material changed for different reasons:
  • to introduce a desirable characteristic (for example: making crops resistant against certain plant diseases)
  • to remove an undesirable characteristic (for example: to prevent browning in apples)
  • to enhance a desirable characteristic that occurs naturally

What genetically modified (GM) foods are approved in Canada?

Canada has approved over 140 GM foods for sale in Canada. Some are grown in Canada, like canola, soybeans, corn and sugar beets and some are imported from other countries like alfalfa,  papaya, and squash.

How are genetically modified foods regulated?

Before they are allowed to be sold, Health Canada completes an assessment on all GM foods to ensure they are as safe and nutritious as foods already in the marketplace. A safety assessment can take many years.

Are genetically modified foods labelled?

It is not mandatory for GM foods to be labelled in Canada as they have been found to be as safe and nutritious as non-GMO foods. However, some food companies choose to label their products “GMO free”.

Labelling of GM foods is challenging. This is because GM foods like sugar, canola and corn are widespread in our food supply. For example, GM corn can be used to make high fructose corn syrup which is used as an ingredient in many other foods (like cereal, yogurt, pop, frozen entrees, salad dressings and condiments). As a result, all of these foods would need to be labelled as having GM ingredients.

What are the benefits of genetically modified foods?

GM crops have been developed to have certain benefits. GM foods may:

  • Grow more easily in some environments (like dry soil conditions)
  • Produce more crops, helping to keep food prices lower
  • Ripen slower or bruise less easily so it lasts longer during shipping
  • Be less at risk for diseases caused by insects or viruses
  • Need less pesticides (like herbicides and insecticides)
  • Have improved nutrient content (for example, vitamin A found in Golden Rice - a GM rice crop used to fight malnutrition in developing countries)
  • Have better taste

Common questions about genetically modified foods

  • Can GM foods cause allergies? There is no evidence that GM foods increase the risk of allergic reactions. Transfer of genes from high allergy foods is discouraged. If they are used, tests are done to make sure the product does not cause allergies. No allergic reactions related to GM foods have been reported.
  • Can GM foods cause resistance to antibiotics?  There is no evidence to show that any antibiotic resistant genes used in GM foods can be transferred to humans.
  • Can GM crops contaminate regular crops? GM crops may blow into fields close by that grow regular crops. Strategies to manage this are being looked at, such as having a clear separation between GM and non-GM fields. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) continues to address this concern.

How can a dietitian help?

A dietitian can help you make choices about the foods you eat based on your personal preferences, culture, medical history and goals. A dietitian will make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need to be healthy and feel your best. Connect with a dietitian today!

Bottom line

GM foods available in Canada are considered safe for us to eat. Labelling GM foods is not required in Canada, so it can be difficult to know if a food product contains GM ingredients.

You may also be interested in:

Understanding Organic Foods
Understanding Food Labels in Canada
Where Do Dietitians Work and What Do They Do?

This article was written and reviewed by dietitians from Dietitians of Canada. The advice in this article is intended as general information and should not replace advice given by your dietitian or healthcare provider.

Last Update – October 2, 2023

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