GMO sugar vs natural sugar – can you tell the difference?

GMO sugar

Chemistry is important. If you’re going to make negative claims about GMO sugar or high fructose corn syrup, we ought to be able to look at these different sugar molecules and confirm a difference between them. So let’s take a look at sugar from three different sources that capture our attention. Sorry, but there will be a quiz afterwards, so please pay attention.

 

A. GMO sugar after consuming it

GMO sugar

 

B. Natural sugar after consuming it

GMO sugar

 

C. High fructose corn syrup GMO sugar after consuming it

GMO sugar

 

The Quiz about all of this chemistry

 

Editor’s note – this was ruthlessly and unapologetically stolen from a meme from Kevin Folta, who spends a lot of time dealing with GMOs. I hope he doesn’t mind.

 

GMO food safety – those genes do not transfer to humans

GMO food safety

There are constant claims made about GMO food safety – everything, from causing allergies to causing cancer. Taking lessons from the anti-vaccine world, anti-GMO activists invent, based on very little or even no evidence, various claims about GMO food safety. One of the worst of these claims is that when you eat GMO foods, the genes from the food somehow, by magic apparently, get incorporated into your genes.

In case you’ve ignored this area of pseudoscience controversy, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are any type of organism where the genes have been modified by genetic engineering. Mostly, GMOs refer to agricultural crops, but there are other genetically modified foods, like salmon. To be clear, we have been genetically modifying food crops since the dawn of agriculture, over 10,000 years. However, we currently use GMO to explicitly mean genetic engineering in the modern sense.

Using the same anti-science arguments employed by climate change deniers, anti-GMO forces ignore the overwhelming scientific consensus, and use their pseudoscience to push concerns about GMO food safety. Let’s remember, the vast scientific evidence says that GMO foods are safe to humans, animals and the environment.

Unfortunately, like the zombie bad research on vaccines, a widely criticized article that seems to claim that DNA passes from GMO foods to humans continues to be an anti-GMO meme. Time to look at the article again, and see if gene transfer really is an issue to GMO food safety.

GMO food safety – the gene transfer paper

In a paper published in the online journal, PLoS One, the authors, Spisak et al., seem to indicate that there is a possibility that DNA fragments pass from the digestive tract into the blood.  The authors concluded that:

…based on the analysis of over 1000 human samples from four independent studies, we report evidence that meal-derived DNA fragments which are large enough to carry complete genes can avoid degradation and through an unknown mechanism enter the human circulation system.

The authors admit that the mechanism is unknown, though it’s curious that years of study of the molecular transport of nutrients has never uncovered this until 2013. Based on this limited evidence, here’s what the anti-GMO crowd says about it:

What biotechnology and biotech corporations like Monsanto have done, is they have allowed for the transfer of genes from one to the other without any regard for the biological limitations, or constraints.

The problem with this is that it is based on very bad science. The conditions and biological ‘rules’ that apply to vertical gene transfer, at least those that we are aware of, do not necessarily apply to horizontal gene transfer.

Biotech science today is based on the assumption that the principles governing the inheritance of genes are the same when we move genes horizontally as they are when they are moved vertically. It just goes to show that GMO’s should be subjected to much more experimentation and rigorous research before we continue to consume them.

The paper’s conclusions were criticized by other scientists who are experts in DNA research. Moreover, there are some meta-level criticisms that can be made of this paper.

  • This study is a primary publication that has not been confirmed by subsequent research. On the hierarchy of scientific evidence, primary research, especially if it’s not been repeated by others.
  • Speaking of repeating this research, in the four years since this paper was published, only six papers have cited it, two of which criticized the quality of research. If this were truly groundbreaking research, we would see many more papers citing it, along with some research that repeats it.
  • The study was published in an, open access, online journal, PLoS One, which has the publication philosophy of “publish first, judge later.” Well, we’re judging now.
  • The study examine minuscule levels of DNA in blood, nanogram levels. We definitely are able to detect nanogram levels of DNA, but at that low level, substantial risk of contamination is so high, that if one were to see these results, the initial hypothesis would probably be “this blood sample was contaminated,” rather than the infinitely more complex and undiscovered mechanism to move these huge molecules into the blood.
  • In fact, Richard W Lusk of the University of Michigan, spent six months reviewing the data and methods of Spisak et al. and concluded that they must consider contamination as the source of plant DNA. Lusk stated that contamination can account for these results, because DNA measurement is so sensitive, that even washed laboratory equipment harbors DNA fragments.
  • In a review of the papers by Spisak et al. and Lusk, it was concluded that “Poor commentary and cherry-picking data helps no one. Spisak’s study tells us about a significant biological finding that needs to be carefully analysed. The cautionary tale is that one must not extrapolate wildly from good science to create horrific scenarios that are not based on any scientific observations whatsoever.” In other words, even if Spisak’s results were not affected by potential contamination, we still could not conclude that GMO food safety is impacted by this data. And given that it hasn’t been repeated, and we have firm evidence that there was contamination, this paper probably should not be used to evaluate GMO food safety.

 

Further debunking 

As I have written, biological plausibility is an important factor in reviewing the viability of evidence in biomedical research. So let’s look at a few items about this research that seem to contradict what we know about biology:

  1. Based on our knowledge of the digestive process, fats, DNA, carbohydrates, and proteins are broken down into their simplest components, and specialized transport systems move these simple components across the barrier between the digestive tract and blood. Our digestive system has evolved to actually exclude full size bio-molecules, partially because the blood is incapable of carrying large foreign molecules (and could induce an immune response). So, a full chain of DNA isn’t going to move from the digestive tract to the blood, just individual nucleic acids. And just to be clear, nucleic acids are the same across every single organism on this planet. Exactly the same.
  2. Moreover, small constituent molecules, like amino acids instead of the whole protein, or glucose instead of a long-chain carbohydrate, are more easily transported to locations in the body to be then used as fuel or building blocks for new proteins and DNA. We just have not seen a mechanism in the digestive tract that can move large molecules, like gene-length DNA fragments, into the bloodstream.
  3. But let’s assume that there’s some unknown, mysterious mechanism that allows DNA to be transmitted into the blood (while excluding long chain carbohydrates, whole proteins, and other large molecules). The numbers are so small, just a handful complete genes, that the probability that those DNA molecules will have any effect on the body is near 0.
  4. Genes don’t easily jump from one species to another. If gene transfer were so simple, the medical usefulness of gene therapy would be extremely high, instead of being incredibly difficult, if not impossible. We’re trying to transfer genes to cure diseases, and researchers have not shown a lot of consistent success. If consuming a few kernels of corn, introduced some gene into the bloodstream that somehow gets incorporated into the human genome, well that would be a miracle. But reality is, even if the article is accurate, and there’s doubt to that, it has little clinical meaning.
  5. But the most important thing is that if there is some heretofore mysterious mechanism to transfer DNA from the digestive tract to the human genome, it should be noted that nearly everything we consume contains DNA. The plausibility that any number of DNA fragments from hamburger, salads, cereal, eggs, or the billion other foods will eat getting into the bloodstream is nearly non-existent. There is no evidence that we ever incorporate genes from corn. Or lettuce. Or a cow. Or a chicken. There is just no evidence of it.
  6. There’s actually evidence that contradicts Spisak et al. Researchers went looking for gene transfer in livestock that are fed GMO crops, and guess what they found? Nothing.

It’s not just that Spisak et al. represents faulty research, but it’s hard to comprehend how it’s even possible that DNA could be in a state that could allow it to be transported into some random cell of the body. This type of misuse of science is frustrating – anti-GMO radicals cherry pick research that seems to support their point of view, but fail to understand biology and physiology. Of course, this happens all the time with anti-science activists.

 

Summary, the TL;DR version

I don’t know if the study in PLoS One is going to stand the test of time given the high probability of contamination of the study samples, which has been demonstrated by another researcher. After four years, there’s just no further research that supports it, something that makes me think it’s a one-off study of marginal utility.

But even if it is confirmed by other research or becomes the initial observation that leads to the discovery of a novel, and implausible, mechanism of transport of nutrients and gene transfer, it provides NO evidence whatsoever that GMOs are dangerous because those genes will be incorporated into our human genome. GMO food safety concerns are unchanged because of this research.

You may as well become worried that we’ll turn into a chicken after eating an egg. Oh no. Franken-foods might cause franken-humans. And because…Monsanto.

 

Key citations:

GMO science – overwhelming consensus that it is safe

GMO science

Real science is hard. It takes lots of high quality evidence to support it. That evidence needs to be published in real journal. It needs to be repeated. And it has to be open to criticism and analysis. GMO science, the study of genetically modified organisms used for crops and food, shows us that GMOs are safe.

The hard work and intellectual challenges to form a scientific consensus about the safety of GMO crops and foods isn’t something that appeared out of the ether. These individuals didn’t suddenly wake up one day and proclaim from the ivory tower that GMO science says that GMOs are safe. Not even close.

Science has provided substantial evidence supporting the assertion that GMO’s are safe. GMO refusers have provided precious little evidence, save for Cherry PickingSpecial Pleading, and a few Strawman Arguments. Oh, and the occasional Poisoning the Well with the Monsanto shill accusations. Sometimes the GMO deniers will resort to the Naturalistic Fallacy that things that grow “naturally” ought to be the way foods should be – this ignores the fact that we’ve been genetically manipulating our food for ten thousand years. We’re just better at it today, but the DNA is still the DNA.

Like I said in another article, “The typical pseudoscientist will use logical fallacies to state very definitively that “it’s proven.” It’s the same whether it’s creationism (the belief that some magical being created the world some small number of years ago), alternative medicine (homeopathy, which is nothing but water, has magical properties to cure everything from cancer to male pattern baldness), or vaccine denialists. The worst problem is that in the world of the internet, if you Google these beliefs, the number of websites and hits that seem to state that they are THE TRUTH™ overwhelm those that are more skeptical or critical.”

So, using an open, but critical mind, the evidence is overwhelming – the GMO science says it’s safe for human consumption.

 

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Scientific consensus on GMO safety and climate change

scientific consensus on GMO

A scientific consensus is one of the most powerful principles in science, sitting just below the predictive power of a scientific theory. In general, a scientific consensus is the collective opinion and judgement of scientists in a particular field of study. This consensus implies general agreement, and disagreement is limited (sometimes from individuals who are not experts in the field) and considered insignificant.

This lead me to a search for the prevailing scientific consensus on GMO safety and climate change.

For clarity, the major difference between a scientific theory and a scientific consensus is that a theory is essentially considered a fact. The theory of gravity is a fact. The theory of evolution is a fact. A theory is so predictive, it is supported by so much evidence, and it is so well accepted, it would take an incredible amount of data to refute it.

The only thing that matters in forming a scientific consensus or theory is evidence. Not rhetoric. Not debate. Not opinion. Not political expediency. Not logical fallacies. Just evidence.

I’ve written about the scientific consensus on GMOs, and it is clear that nearly every independent scientific organization across the world agrees that GMOs are safe for humans and/or the environment. Moreover, most of these same organizations provide a similar consensus about climate change–ironically, there is a significant portion of people who deny one consensus but accept the other, despite the fact that the consensus for both scientific principles are based on nearly overwhelming evidence.

On the next page, I will review the statements of seven prestigious scientific organizations across the world for the scientific consensus on GMO safety and on climate change.

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Developing and supporting a scientific consensus

In my writing, I often refer to the scientific consensus, which is the collective opinion and judgement of scientists in a particular field of study. This consensus implies general agreement, though disagreement is limited and generally insignificant.

The major difference between a scientific theory and a scientific consensus is that the theory is essentially fact. It is so predictive, it is supported by so much evidence, and it is so well accepted, it takes an almost ridiculous amount of data to refute it, though it is possible.

In the hierarchy of scientific principles, we often mention scientific theories which “are large bodies of work that are a culmination or a composite of the products of many contributors over time and are substantiated by vast bodies of converging evidence. They unify and synchronize the scientific community’s view and approach to a particular scientific field.” A scientific theory is not a wild and arbitrary guess, but it is built upon a foundation of scientific knowledge that itself is based on evidence accumulated from data that resulted from scientific experimentation.

We want to focus on the scientific consensus, describing what it is. Take a deep breath, because this is a complicated one.

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GMO scientific consensus – it’s broad and unequivocal, they’re safe

GMO scientific consensus

I have been writing about the GMO scientific consensus for quite some time, because this scientific consensus for the safety of GMO crops is so overwhelming that it’s almost impossible to ignore. Let me put it this way – if you accept the enormous evidence that supports the scientific theory of climate change, then you should know that there is almost the same volume of evidence that supports the safety of genetically modified foods.

If you accept the science of climate change, but deny the science of GMOs, then you are a science denier. It’s pretty simple. In fact, many of us think that GMO deniers are the left’s version of climate change deniers.

The scientific consensus is based only on evidence. Not politics. Not your snowflake opinion. And certainly not on your cherry picked junk science.  The scientific consensus is the collective opinion and judgement of scientists in a particular field of study. This consensus implies general agreement, and if there is disagreement, it is limited and generally insignificant.

Moreover, a consensus is not permanent, because, as I’ve said a number of times, science is not a dogma. If contradictory evidence arises, of the same quality that formed the original consensus, then the established concord could fall apart, or move to a different one. Remember, all science is provisional – if the evidence changes, the consensus changes.

So, the GMO scientific consensus is based on mountains and mountains of evidence, reviewed by the best scientific bodies in the world. These are the world’s leading scientists, individuals with expertise in agriculture, genetics, biotechnology, and other related fields, who have come together to review that data, and, eventually come to a consensus that appeals to the broadest swath of scientists.

Of course, I’ve written about the GMO scientific consensus many times. Reading comments to those articles are always amusing. In the past, I generally relied on a couple of august scientific bodies for this consensus, but I always get the comment, “yeah but they’re bought off by Monsanto, it only represents a couple of countries,” or any number of other logical fallacies. Thanks to an exhaustive list produced by the Credible Hulk, it’s time to review all of the world’s science organizations’ statements on the GMO scientific consensus. Spoiler alert – there is no consensus that will state GMOs are evil, dangerous, or cause us to fall over dead because corn is growing out of our brain.

Just to be perfectly clear, the term GMO also encompasses other terms like genetically engineered or genetically modified foods. There are no differences between these various terms for these foods. Furthermore, the scientific consensus includes two separate, but related claims:

  1. All GMO crops, that were developed using modern genetic engineering processes and that are approved for commercial use by national regulatory bodies, are as safe to consume and as safe for the environment as the corresponding non-GMO counterparts.
  2. Modern genetic engineering would be no more likely to cause unpredicted dangers than would other methods of changing an organism’s genome (for example, selective breeding, radiation mutagenesis, polyploidy or wide cross hybridization) which have been employed in agriculture for over 10,000 years. And we simply reject the naturalistic fallacy, which some use to claim that “natural” changes to the genome are inherently “better” than genetic engineering.

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Alternative facts – skeptics have been dealing with this for years

Alternative facts

Alternative facts, what most of us would call outright lies or misinformation, are the new standard of truthfulness coming out of the Donald Trump administration. It started when Kellyanne Conway, one of the numerous Trump talking heads who think Americans are stupid, said, “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving … alternative facts.”

Alternative facts seem to be pretty close to the Nazi propaganda technique, called the Big Lie. It is about the use of a lie so colossal that the public would not believe that someone would have the audacity to distort the truth so impressively. Except, I’m going to reiterate most Americans (an non-Americans) aren’t that stupid. And sorry for going Godwin so early in the article, but sometimes, it is necessary to point out the obvious.

I’ve been fighting alternative facts as skeptic for nearly three decades. It started when I got into an argument with a school board candidate in California who said that “evolution is just a theory.” Now, those of you with scientific understanding accept that a theory, at least in science, is approximately equal to a fact. What he should have said is, “evolution is just a fact,” but instead he was making “theory” a pejorative which implied evolution wasn’t a fact.

He and I must have argued for 20 minutes, when he finally claimed that science was a religion that required faith, which, of course, is the exact opposite of what science represents. I told him that he apparently lacked any education in science, so why should he be on the school board. He lost, though I take no credit for it.

Over the years, I have evolved (pun intended) into other areas of scientific skepticism, like GMOs, vaccines, and alternative medicine. See, even the junk medicine quacks grasped that “alternative” label long before Donald Trump walked into the national spotlight.

Let’s look at my favorite alternative facts of science.

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Girl Scout cookies and GMO – subtly pushing an anti-science agenda

Girl Scout cookies and GMO

Of all the icons of American life, buying Girl Scout cookies is one of the annual obligations of life. Americans buy these cookies from parents selling for their daughters, from uniformed Girl Scouts in front of the grocery store, or from a family member. I can’t wait for my annual infusion of Samoas, the Girl Scout’s take on the macaroon. Caramel and coconut – how could we go wrong? Well, apparently, I need to spend more time to consider the issue of Girl Scout cookies and GMO ingredients.

To be honest, I’m more concerned about the calories in each. But here we are.

Late last year, The Girl Scouts of the USA made an announcement in regarding Girl Scout cookies and GMO products:

At the current time, there are genetically modified agricultural crops (GMOs) in some Girl Scout Cookies based on a range of market-related factors and depending on specific cookie recipes. In some markets, the specialty-ingredient Girl Scout S’mores sandwich cookie baked by Little Brownie Bakers is made with ingredients that are verified as not containing genetically modified organisms. Girl Scouts recognizes that many people have concerns regarding GMO ingredients, and we monitor member and consumer opinion on this matter while simultaneously addressing industry trends, scientific trends, and, of course, consumer preference.

Sadly, the Girl Scouts have decided to cave in to the demands of certain groups that GMOs bring some sort of harm to consumers. Of course, the usual anti-science groups jumped into the fray. March Against Monsanto, a group that ticks off the most of the junk science checklist with their anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, and anti-fluoridated water arguments, were ecstatic with the announcement. They chimed in that,

There was a time recently in the United States when Non-GMO and organic packaged foods were surprisingly rare, so much so that choice was a virtual non-entity and entire communities of people have no access to non-GMO options.

But now, non-GMO has officially gone mainstream: one of the country’s most recognized institutions, the Girl Scouts of the USA (formerly known as America) has announced its first-ever (officially speaking, anyway) non-GMO cookie.

You can almost see the glee dripping from the announcement. Once again, let’s take a look at Girl Scout cookies and GMO safety. This change happened because of a lot of noise that signified nothing. Time to examine it again.

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GMO crop pesticide use in USA soybeans and corn – just the facts

GMO crop pesticide

The safety of GMO crops to humans, animals and the environment has been well established. The scientific consensus clearly states that consuming bioengineered foods has no effect on your health. Clearly, you can grab an ear of GMO corn, put some butter and a sprinkle of salt on it, and you will eat it with no negative health effects. And you’ll have a giant smile across your face.

But the anti-GMO forces have attempted to move the target. They have tried to claim that GMO crops are less productive and cost more to produce. That’s beyond the scope of this article, though there is some pretty good evidence that there is higher yield for bioengineered crops.

One of the more annoying aspects of the anti-GMO complains is conflating the genetically modified crop with the GMO crop pesticide. Invariably, some someone will post a meme or discuss a trope that evolves from GMO food to glyphosate, the herbicide known as RoundUp. the conversation will lead to ridiculous conclusions that Monsanto (who manufactures glyphosate) is killing everyone by forcing farmers to use RoundUp with Monsanto’s own GMO crops which are resistant to glyphosate. It’s all Monsanto all the time when discussing GMO crop pesticide use.

A new paper was published last month that may or may not give us more information about pesticide use with GMO crops.

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Greenpeace anti-GMO beliefs – Nobel laureates say they’re wrong

Greenpeace anti-GMO beliefs

I have always been fascinated with Greenpeace, especially back in the ancient times, when I had much more activist ideas about environmental issues. They tried to block nuclear missile tests and save the whales, which seemed like the right things to do. But my scientific side matured, and after observing the Greenpeace anti-GMO beliefs for a long while, I’m not sure that they are scientifically literate.

First of all, GMOs have been heavily studied, and they have been found to be safe for animals, humans and the environment.  Moreover, the world’s leading scientific groups have come to the scientific consensus that GMOs are safe.

Yet Greenpeace has anti-GMO as if GMOs were killing whales or something worse. They have been so steadfast in their opposition against GMOs that they have tried, partially successfully, to block the introduction of golden rice, a critical food to saving lives of hundreds of thousands of children.

Well, I guess a bunch of real scientists got sick of Greenpeace anti-GMO beliefs that bordered on Ludditism. So, a group of 110 Nobel laureates wrote a strongly worded letter to Greenpeace, essentially calling it a “crime against humanity.” And yes, it is.

Let’s look at this story with some science.

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