Are GMOs responsible for a spike in food allergies?

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Over the last 30 years, reported cases of food allergies — especially in young children — have gone up.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 4 percent of children under 18 have some kind of food or digestive allergy. That number represents an increase of 18 percent for all food allergies among children between 1997 and 2007.

For some foods, the increase has been even greater. For example, peanut allergy prevalence has quadrupled from 0.4 percent in 1997 to more than 2 percent in 2010. In fact, peanut allergy is now the leading cause of anaphylactic shock — the most severe form of allergy — due to food in the United States. And the problem isn’t just confined to the US: hospital admissions for food-related anaphylaxis has seen a seven-fold rise in the United Kingdom since 1990.

So, what’s going on? Assuming these increases are bona fide, what’s causing them?

There is no short list of culprits. Microbiome, Western diet, and socioeconomic status to name a few. A number of groups have also blamed genetically modified food. According to the Organic Consumers Association, the main trade group for the organic food industry:

Genetic engineering, for instance, can increase existing allergens, or produce new, unknown allergens. Both appear to have happened in genetically modified (GM) soy, which is found in the majority of processed foods.

Jeffrey Smith, head of the Institute for Responsible Technology, author of the books Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette, weighed in with this advice:

Beginning in 1996, genes from bacteria and viruses have been forced into the DNA of soy, corn, cotton, and canola plants, which are used for food. Ohio allergist John Boyles is one of a growing number of experts who believe that these genetically modified (GM) foods are contributing to the huge jump in food allergies in the US, especially among children.

003_opt_opt12However, of the foods that most frequently cause food allergy, GM versions simply don’t exist.

There is no GM peanut (although development of a hypoallergenic GM peanut is ongoing). There is no GM milk. Or consumable GM egg (although there is now that makes medicine). However, a few cases of allergenicity cropped up during early experiments involving genetically engineered foods, which piqued concerns.

  • The first, in 1996, involved the transfer of a Brazil nut protein into a soybean to enhance the soy’s nutrition. However, the allergenic properties of the Brazil nut protein 2S albumin, a common allergen, also were transferred over and triggered an allergic reaction in experimental human volunteers. The 2S albumin was transferred because of its methionine (an essential amino acid) content. The experiment was halted.
  • The second involved an Australian experiment in 2005 on mice in which a bean protein designed to resist the pea weevil (an insect pest) ended up triggering severe immune reactions in the mice. While the alpha-amylase inhibitor protein itself was expressed in mice, it had changed glycosylation (sugars that coat the protein). Glycosylation is a very specific, and changes in these sugar coatings can trigger an immune response against the “new” protein. Not only was this found out quickly through a thorough study, today’s immunological products have more ways to significantly reduce these changes in glycosylation.

Both of these incidents show one of three ways an allergy risk could possibly increase from GM foods. The incidents involve transferring a known allergen (either a Brazil nut protein, or glycosylation) into a food crop. A second way is to increase the inherent ability of a GM crop to cause allergies. However, no studies have found heightened intrinsic allergenicity when compared with non-biotech equivalents. The third way involves the creation of a brand new, novel protein that could trigger an allergy. Though this last possibility, of a “franken-protein,” has caught media attention and been used by anti-GMO groups, it has not yet happened.

European Union health agencies, and member nation health agencies, as well as the US FDA, EPA and USDA, are all involved in necessary rigorous assessments of GM foods (or any other foods) for allergic potential. The EPA, in fact, maintains an extensive list of foods that could trigger allergies. Another resource used to test for allergens is the University of Nebraska’s Allergen Online, which matches amino acid sequences of possible allergens with reference proteins known to cause allergies. And, so far, no single biotechnology-based protein in food has been found to cause an allergic reaction.

While any food could cause an allergic reaction in somebody, some patterns have arisen:

  • First, allergens are nearly all proteins. Thus, by studying the amino acid sequence of a potential genetically engineered protein and comparing to amino acid sequences of known allergens, it is relatively straightforward task to determine early on if a protein might cause problems.
  • Nearly all allergens trigger a complex immune system process that results in the creation of antibody called IgE (immunoglobulin type E). An allergy is triggered by the second exposure to the allergen, by triggering a reaction from IgE. However, the specific proteins that trigger this reaction vary a great deal.
  • While food allergies can come from any food, the overwhelming majority (90 percent) come from eight foods: Peanuts, wheat, soy, milk, shellfish, fish, eggs and tree nuts (Brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds). In children, most allergies are caused by eggs, milk, and peanuts.
  • Allergies are not the same as intolerances, such as lactose intolerance. Intolerances are caused by different molecular and biological mechanisms, such as the absence of an enzyme (like lactase), and don’t necessarily require the complete avoidance that allergies do. They are not the same as toxins, which create an immediate reaction on first exposure.

If not GMOs, then what?

The causes behind the increase in food allergies are not known. While anti-GMO groups have pointed to biotechnology, there are other proposed causes, each with a varying degree of data to support each:

  • The “hygiene hypothesis,” which proposes that a more germ-free existence during infancy and early childhood doesn’t trigger immune reactions to pathogens at an early age. This means, the hypothesis goes, that such immune systems don’t recognize true pathogens and reacts instead to what should be harmless stimuli (i.e., food).
  • Birth by caesarean section, because a baby born this way does not acquire its mother’s gastrointestinal bacteria that it would during a vaginal birth. This development of the infant’s microbiome could help boost immunity to pathogens, but without proper (or any) development, allergies may result. Babies born by caesarean section do appear to have a higher risk of developing food allergies.
  • Food additives, like sulfites and sodium benzoate, may trigger reactions in some people. Artificial sweeteners and food colorings may also cause allergies in sensitive people. These additives are common parts of nearly all foods, and while some are added during processing, others are natural.
  • Genetics and inheritability aren’t very clearly linked to food allergies, especially when viewing them in general. A Johns Hopkins study found a 20 percent penetrance (the degree to which a version of a gene causes the predicted phenotype) of genes around two significant immune genes, HLA-DR and HLA-DQ, associated with peanut allergy, but they also found that not everybody with these genes gets an allergic reaction.

The typical treatment for food allergy is avoidance. However, some studies have shown some there may be a better treatment, as well as insights into the etiology of allergies.

  • A British study on peanuts carefully measured allergic reaction in 500 infants when the children reached five years of age. All the infants were at high-risk of peanut allergy, and when they were five, given an oral challenge (basically, given a peanut and then measured for a reaction). 17.2 percent of children who had avoided peanuts since infancy had an allergic reaction, while just 3.2 percent of the children who had consumed peanuts since infancy had an allergic reaction. In addition, among children who had no apparent risk of allergy, 13.7 percent of children who avoided peanuts did have an allergy, while just 1.9 percent of children who ate peanuts had such an allergy.
  • A large Australian survey of more than 5,000 infants found that risks of allergy included parents born overseas (especially from Asia), delayed consumption of eggs, peanuts and sesame, and family history. Dogs, however, were apparently protective from allergic risks.
  • A University of Chicago team fed Clostridium bacteria (the same genus, but not the same species as C. difficile, the scourge of hospital-acquired infections worldwide) to mice that had been raised in sterile environments. With no microbiome developed in their intestinal systems, the mice developed severe allergic reactions to peanuts. Clostridium, however, fought off the allergic reaction.

Allergic reactions are complex. Even though eight foods cause most allergies, many more can cause specific reactions, because everybody’s intestinal, nervous and immune systems are different (not to mention their genetics). While certain genetically engineered experimental foods were found to have allergens, these allergens were known and caught by researchers in early stages, just as a test on organic peanuts would also show a potential allergic reaction in sensitive people. And further studies have shown that transgenics technology does not make a food any more allergenic — but neither does it automatically make it less (unless the target trait is allergenicity).

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

  • Schratboy

    Roundup is the omnipresent lover-companion of GMO science and practice. We mustn’t forget its nutrient-binding disruptive nature…

    • James Knowles

      Do you have a citation to support that nature? Or one to support Roundup’s omnipresence with GMOs? I’m fairly certain it is only a common companion of Roundup-Ready crops…

  • Americium Dream Documents

    not sure what he meant to say here:
    ” /Artificial/ sweeteners and food colorings
    may also cause allergies in sensitive people.
    These additives are common parts of nearly all foods,
    and while some are added during processing,
    others are /natural/” [despite being artificial].

  • Logical voice

    This article is just wasted talk. If not GMOs than what is causing an increase in food allergies? Preservatives is a “reason.” Yes preservative allergies are rising but how is that then going to cause someone to develop allergies to a protein chain in a food? A preservative isn’t even a protein to begin with. Another “reason” for an increase in food allergies is that it doesn’t have a genetic link. Wow this is so enlightening. I totally trust gmos now. Thank God for monsanto, their is no way manipulation of proteins and in our foods could cause food allergies to rise, this article just totally debunked all of that.

    • Lee Tennant

      Ah yes, always love an argument from ignorance. We don’t know what’s causing something so I can just make it up! Prove me wrong! That’s how I know that chronic fatigue syndrome is caused by Venus’ orbit. I mean, if not that then what?

      • Logical voice

        It is not ignorant to suspect gmo’s cause food allergies. Each strain of gmo’s are analyzed to ensure known allergenic protein strands are not included in the new crops. There have been gmo crops that have been banned because they caused a food allergy in the crop handlers. It is a known issue with them.
        I am not saying the increase in food allergies is only due to gmo crops. I would like to know what could be some other reasons, this article did not supply that.
        You seem really passionate about belittling people and incapable of debating topics. Calling someone ignorant then going on about chronic fatigue syndrome on a discussion about food allergies is hilarious, but your ego won’t let you see that will it? You are a small minded animal who needs to go back to swinging on vines, have sex and babies with strangers, while getting dressed up to post pictures about your fantasy life on facebook, you know typical american pass times.

        • agscienceliterate

          Citation for this claim about food allergies in “crop handlers” from GE crops? You mean farmers? Food manufacturers? Grocery store bin stockers?
          Clarify.

          • Logical voice

            No I won’t play this game I am not in this gmo war! And I said food allergy, to the specific food they were growing, production was stopped, it wasn’t safe for consumers, I believe it was before codex or the allergen database. GMOs can cause allergies in people if they put dna that encodes proteins that can resist acidity, if they insert dna that encodes for proteins people have allergies for or are similar in sequence. This is a known fact, that is why there are safeguards in place to prevent this from happening! There was a major study that said that GMOs were safe but that it is difficult to test for their safety and not a lot of independent studies have been done. Basically you are freaking out about an issue, supporting something so strongly and so passionately prematurely. Don’t get overly emotional about this, calling people names demanding this demanding that is annoying, you do research on this, its full of a**holes like you from both sides. I do not understand how preservatives can be a cause to an increase in food allergies, I was commenting on an ARTICLE. I have an allergy to a preservative and wanted to find out more about this.

          • agscienceliterate

            It’s not a “war.” It’s boring old science. And GE foods have been tested for allergens more than any other foods in the world, including those produced by mutagenesis (look it up) with no testing, or organic (no testing).
            Your “know fact” is not a known fact. Provide your citation.
            Over 1800 studies to date, not just “…a major study.”
            “Freaking out” I ain’t, dude. Not worth freaking out over. But I sure as hell will call you out when you leap to conclusions about GE foods without doing even the tiniest bit of research for yourself. While I think it’s great you want to find out more about your particular allergy preservative, don’t get your knickers all in a twist and leap to conclusions that it’s caused by GE foods.
            You got hysterical because I asked you to provide citations. I asked you to clarify “food handlers,” and you react like this? Grow up and grow a pair. Answer the friggin’ question, or don’t post garbage.

          • Logical voice

            No you are freaking out…. I don’t appreciate being called ignorant 4 months to a comment I made basically questioning this incomplete article and making a comment about monsanto! You don’t need to “call people out on things” and act as if there aren’t a plethora of studies on the internet that link gmos to low fertility rates, sensitivities, tumors, ect… in animal models. It isn’t very forthcoming and not respectable, you aren’t debating anything just putting poeple down in a very condescending way. Also, I am not an activists and really don’t care to get into a debate about the safety of gmo foods or how many studies or by whom need to do them. Food allergies are not that common to begin with.
            Alas, like every article that people post on more than 1 “random” commenter comes on here to belittle and berate anyone who has anything to say about monsanto and gmos. Its been 4 months, you posted an a**hole comment 4 months after I did and you called your little buddies to come join your little war. Don’t act like this is a coincidence, Haha I am not an activists, this is typical small mindedness, putting people down, belittling them, “shut up and grow a pair.”
            I will not respond to anything else, be a bully in your own house, not on the internet, let your wife see the mistake she made and your kids see you as an example and be little arrogant bullies at school!

          • agscienceliterate

            You can snark-troll and disappear if you want. You made a ridiculous assertion, I ask you to give a citation, and you respond this way?
            No citation, no credibility. Your opinion without science is just that; an opinion. An assertion that “food handlers” have allergies from handling GE food. I think it is reasonable to ask where you got that (ridiculous) misinformation.
            No citation, no credibility.
            Stick with organic and non-GMO certified. You will be a lot happier.

          • Logical voice

            No, for the love of God, please listen to me and calm down. The article is what this is about. Did you not even read the article? The 4 points he lists “if not gmos then what” aren’t really points at all. How can preservatives cause a rise in the common food allergens, how can sulfites cause someone to develop an allergy to eggs for example? He lists genetics under this but then says it isn’t linked, the hygiene hypothesis is the only strong point, same old point. This is a bad article, its more of an opinion piece disguised as educational.
            I never assertained that food handlers have allergies from handling gmo foods, I said they developed an allergy to that specific crop. I even clarified your assumption but alas, you are just repeating it again. Your buddy knows what I was talking about which, my point was is that it is a known risk.

          • agscienceliterate

            What food handlers? I will ask you one last time. Farmers? Manufacturers? Shelf stockers? And what crop?
            And what “known risk”?
            Citations, please.

        • Lee Tennant

          I didn’t say it was an ignorant argument. I said it was an argument from ignorance. That is a specific logical fallacy in the form of
          “We don’t know the reason for x therefore y is the reason.” It’s used mostly by theists. “We don’t know how life started therefore God”.

          We don’t know what is causing the rise of allergies. You might suspect it’s GMOs but since the statement ‘we don’t know’ exists then you can’t claim it’s ‘obvious’ it ‘must’ be GMOs because you ‘can’t think of what else it might be’. Ergo, an argument from ignorance.

          Also, and this is a common flaw I find in anti-GMO positions, you make the argument that some GMOs have been banned because they caused a food allergy. You don’t seem to realise this provides evidence *against* your position as it shows that GMO processes that cause food allergies aren’t making their way into the food supply.

          While your language is vague enough to be seem ominous, this point relates to one single pea produced by Australia’s CSIRO that they ceased development on. One product. Never made it to the food supply. It doesn’t support your position – it undermines it.

          And may I point out, that I never once insulted you during that post sticking to what you said and the flaws in its logic (although I did make fun of arguments from ignorance generally). You, however, resorted to considerable personal abuse. So maybe it’s time for some self-reflection, no?

          • agscienceliterate

            He got very huffy with me when I had the audacity to ask him for citations about food allergies in “food handlers.” Damn, I should know better than to ask for reliable evidence from activists by now, right?

          • Lee Tennant

            It’s like arguing with climate change deniers. They accuse you of ad hominem and ignoring evidence and then launch into a fact-free rant filled with insults and pre-scripted talking points. It’s frustrating but we live in a post-factual age of anti-intellectualism and this is where we end up.

          • agscienceliterate

            Actually, “he” is a “she,” but the huffiness and lack of citation is still there.

          • Logical voice

            I was just commenting on the article, if not gmos then what? Then he doesn’t list anything credible but the hygiene hypothesis. My point is that this pea crop could have been entered into our food supply, that entering a crop into the food supply that causes allergies to some is a risk and not this ignorant, unbelievable strange concept, like your chronic fatigue whatever. It is possible they are causing an increase in food allergies, its way more logical than blaming artificial sweeteners which have been around way before gmos. Food allergies are still relatively rare and are very specific immune responses, which vary from person to person. Thus, they are not easy to test for through a person’s blood, you have to have that specific antigen the person has, but these vary from person to person. Over the years they have identified a lot of amino acids strands (these are the building blocks of protein) that illicit immune responses in humans, but this is not an exhaustive list, and gmo companies make sure these are not included in their crops. However, it is impossible to know what every single antigen to every single person is, and if these foods could illicit an antibody within a person would be very difficult to find, food allergies haven’t risen that much, some yes, its a big deal to that person, but in the grand scheme of things, especially with this circus like freak show that runs around with any mention of monsanto or gmos, it isn’t that big of a deal.

    • agscienceliterate

      There is not even a good correlation. And correlation is not causation in any case. Speculation is not science.

  • Rob

    The common thread is glyphosate herbicide. It’s used heavily on GM and non-GM food. All Non-organic animals, poultry and farmed fish have a diet of food treated with glyphosate – this contaminates both eggs and milk. Wheat and other non-GMO crops are sprayed with it, often just before harvest. Evidence is mounting to show that glyphosate is responsible for a lot of health issues. Of course, glyphosate is a Monsanto product.