Indigestion

04.28.15 9:15 AM ET

We're Paranoid About GMO Foods Because of Pseudo-Science

Chipotle says it will eliminate GMO ingredients from its menus. But many scientists believe the feverish antipathy toward GMOs is misplaced.

On Monday, Chipotle became the first fast-food chain to eliminate genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) from its menus.

“This is another step toward the visions we have of changing the way people think about and eat fast food,” Steve Ells, founder and co-chief executive of Chipotle, said regarding the GMO ban.

The Mexican food chain has followed through on a promise made in March 2013, when it became the first national chain to disclose its use of GMOs.

It was a strategic concession on the company’s part—a way of coming clean to customers—before vowing that their menus would soon be GMO-free.

Whole Foods joined the anti-GMO slipstream that same month, announcing plans to require all U.S. and Canadian stores to label products containing GMOs. (The label requirement will go into effect in 2018.)

Over the years, the anti-GMO movement has been subsumed by the natural foods and environmentalist movements, promoted by some of their most prominent and popular voices.

Food journalist Michael Pollan has been an outspoken skeptic, arguing that GMOs are a product of rapacious, corporatist food and farming movements that are making America sick and obese.

Likewise the primatologist Jane Goodall, who, in her 2013 book, Seeds of Hope, cites dubious research to support her anti-GMO claims: a 2001 study from the CDC which “found twenty-eight subjects had experienced apparent allergic reactions after ingesting GM corn.”

But Goodall fails to mention that the CDC report did not provide “any evidence that the reactions that the affected people experienced were associated with hypersensitivity” to genetically modified corn.

For many consumers, GMOs evoke unnatural “Frankenfoods”: supersized, shiny tomatoes on steroids and mutant strawberries contaminated with bovine DNA.

But the pseudoscience that has given rise to these consumer fears has been thoroughly debunked in significant scientific studies and peer reviews.

In her 2011 study in Scientific American, the prominent plant geneticist Pamela Ronald noted a “broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat.

“After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.”

Still, the fear of “Frankenfoods” remains so widespread, so deeply—if wrongly—embedded in the popular “natural” foods movement that Chipotle stands to commercialize hysteria and make a profit on its GMO ban.

But scientists say Chipotle’s exclusion of all GMO ingredients as part of its “Food with Integrity” philosophy is misinformed and exploitative of consumers.

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“They’re positioning themselves as the good guys, but they’re actually exploiting people’s lack of sophistication about these issues and perpetuating pseudoscience,” says Jon Entine, founder of the Genetic Literacy Project and senior fellow at the University California-Davis’s World Food Center.

Entine references the most comprehensive review of GMOs and food—a 2014 study compiling nearly 30 years of health data on more than 100 billion food-producing animals, both before and after the introduction of genetically engineered feed in 1996—as scientific proof that genetically modified foods are safe for human consumption.

Published in the Journal of Animal Science, the review resulted in two crucial findings: first, that no nutritional variances were detected in food-products derived from animals who ate genetically modified feed; second, that these animals were just as healthy as those who ate non-GMO feed.

In Chipotle’s case, the notion that its food will be GMO-free is itself misleading. Indeed, buried in the fine print of Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity” philosophy is a mealy-mouthed admission that “the meat and dairy served at Chipotle are likely to come from animals given at least some GMO feed.”

Nowhere do they mention that 90 percent of cheese in the U.S. is made with the genetically engineered enzyme, rennet, which acts as a coagulant. (Chipotle did not respond to inquiries from The Daily Beast about whether their cheese is now rennet-free.)

“They’re trying to denigrate conventional agriculture to make their products seem superior,” says Allison Van Eenenaam, lead author of the Journal of Animal Science review. “Where is the evidence that everyone else’s products lack integrity, as their campaign suggests?”

Val Giddings, a senior fellow specializing in biotechnology at Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, agrees.

Chipotle’s qualifications for their “Food with Integrity” slogan “don’t stand up under scrutiny,” says Giddings, a former senior staff geneticist and biotech regulator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He adds that the company’s new GMO-free campaign is “profoundly mistaken, based on fear and misrepresentation.”

As far back as 2012, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes the journal Science, concluded that foods containing genetically modified ingredients “pose no greater risk” than non-GMO foods, and that slapping labels on genetically modified foods—as Whole Foods plans to do—could “mislead and falsely alarm consumers.”

But Chipotle’s GMO-free campaign is powerful because it appeals to a growing demographic of consumers who care more about where their food comes from. Most important, it scratches an ideological itch.

“It’s very easy to use fear to align people to your philosophy,” Giddings says, “and Chipotle is playing to the lizard brain.”