Are Genetically Engineered Foods Leading to Gluten Sensitivity?
– November 5, 2013
Celiac disease typically involves adults suddenly becoming intolerant to proteins they had eaten all of their lives. Incidence has jumped five-fold just since 1974.2 Theories about its increase have included changes in wheat through selective breeding in the United States, the increased consumption of wheat, and environmental and dietary factors that render people more vulnerable.
Genetically modified (GM) foods fit squarely in this last category. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were introduced on a wide scale starting in 1996. The technology involves inserting a gene, typically from bacteria or viruses, into plants such as soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, and sugar beets. The inserted gene produces a protein that confers a new trait on the plant. The primary trait in four out of five GMOs is called herbicide tolerance. These plants tolerate doses of deadly weed killer that would normally kill the non-genetically engineered varieties. The crops, however, absorb the sprayed on toxin, storing much of it in the food portion for us to consume. This can lead to trouble.
The second main trait is found only in GM corn and cotton plants. These have been engineered with the gene from soil bacteria that produces a toxic insecticide; it breaks open the stomach of certain insects to kill them. This too can lead to trouble.
If we explore the properties of these two toxins, they appear to be designed to produce four of the characteristics of those with gluten problems: inappropriate immune responses, leaky gut, imbalance in the gut bacteria, and compromised digestive capacity. Ironically, when gluten sensitive people remove wheat from their diet, they typically increase the amount of genetically engineered soy and corn.
Exposure to allergens; sensitizing the system
Sensitivity to gluten is just one of many immune reactions to food that is rising. Hospital-confirmed extreme food allergies have been steadily increasing over the past 15 years. It is well known that, if a person is experiencing an allergic reaction to one substance, they can become more vulnerable to reactions from other potential triggers. Once the allergen “load” reaches a critical threshold, the person may react to many things that were tolerated before that point.
Several animal feeding studies show that GMOs provoke a variety of immune system reactions. There are many possible causes:
1. The protein produced from the inserted gene may be an allergen.
GMOs introduce new proteins into our diet from bacteria and viruses sources. They have never been part of the human food supply. People aren’t usually allergic to a food until they have eaten it several times. It’s therefore difficult to know in advance if the new foreign protein was an allergen. Without a surefire method to identify allergenic GM crops, the World Health Organization (WHO) and others suggest examining the properties of the new protein to see if it shares characteristics with proteins that are known to trigger allergies. Roundup Ready soy, Bt corn, and GM papaya all fail the WHO tests; they have sections of their proteins that match the amino acid sequences of known allergens.3 The Bt protein remains stable for too long when exposed to heat and to simulated stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Thus, it shares the characteristic with many allergens of not being degraded quickly during digestion.
Many other studies also implicate Bt-toxin as an allergen. In its natural state derived from soil bacteria, Bt-toxin has triggered immune responses in mice4 and in farm workers,5and allergicand flu-like symptoms in hundreds of exposed citizens.6 An Italian government study showed that mice fed Bt corn had dramatic immune responses.7Furthermore, thousands of Indian farm workers who harvest Bt cotton are also experiencing allergic- and flulike symptoms.8
When scientists exposed mice to natural Bt-toxin, not only did they react to the toxin directly, afterwards substances that formerly did not cause a response triggered their immune systems.9 This illustrates how exposure to one GM food might cause an increase in allergies to many natural foods.
2. The Process of Genetic Engineering Produces New or Increased Allergens
Irrespective of which foreign gene is inserted into a plant, the very process of insertion, followed by cloning that cell into a plant, causes massive collateral damage to the plants’ natural DNA. There can be hundreds or thousands of mutations throughout the DNA, and these in turn can introduce new allergens or toxins, or elevate levels of existing harmful proteins. A gene in Monsanto’s Bt corn, for example that is normally switched off in natural corn, was switched on to produce an allergen (gamma zein). Monsanto’s cooked Roundup Ready soybeans have as much as 7-times the levels of a known soy allergen (trypsin inhibitor).10
3. Harmless Proteins Can Turn Harmful in GMOs
In plants, molecules can attach themselves to proteins, changing their effect. When a GM protein is produced in a foreign organism, altered molecular attachments can turn a harmless protein into one that provokes deadly immune reactions. When Australian scientists, for example, inserted a gene from kidney beans into peas, the protein produced in a genetically engineered pea had the right amino acid sequence—the same as that produced in kidney beans. But the sugar molecules attached to the protein in the peas had a slightly different shape than the molecules that attached themselves in the natural beans. This slight change of the sugar chain (called glycolsylation) was credited with changing a harmless protein into a potentially deadly allergen. In addition, the mice fed the GM peas started to react to egg albumin, while those fed non-GM peas or kidney beans did not.11
According to Judy Carman, an epidemiologist and the director of The Institute of Health and Environmental Research in Australia, “If a GM food was introduced onto supermarket shelves and caused an immune reaction, it would be very difficult to find the culprit, particularly if it caused reactions to other, different foods, as this GM pea was found to do.”
In fact, no one is looking closely to find if GM is more responsible for the increase in food allergies in the US since their introduction. In the UK, soy allergies jumped by 50 percent just after GMOs were introduced in the late 1990s. But no critical evaluation was done to see if genetic engineering was the cause. Allergists like John Boyle from Ohio however have seen clearly in his practice that those with allergies will react more to the genetically engineered varieties than to the natural ones. And the Institute for Responsible Technology has received numerous testimonials from individuals who claim the same.
Healthy intestines usually allow only tiny by-products of digestion to be ushered appropriately into the bloodstream for assimilation.12 If someone has gaps in their intestinal walls, known as leaky gut, undigested food particles, gut bacteria, and even consumed chemicals, can all enter the bloodstream and wreak havoc. A high percentage of patients diagnosed with celiac disease have leaky gut.13
When larger, undigested proteins get into the bloodstream, the immune system can treat them as invaders and attack. This will result in a number of inflammatory reactions and symptoms of a hypersensitive immune system. Some of these proteins may have similarities to components of our own body. When the immune system gets programmed to attack these proteins, they may also attack our body’s own tissues, which is called and autoimmune reaction. Celiac disease is one such example of this immune system “friendly fire.”
GM Corn Creates Small Holes in Human Cells
Bt-toxin is designed to create holes in cells—not in human cells, but rather in the gut walls of certain species of insect; it breaks open their digestive tract and kills them.14 In spite of promises by the biotech industry and Environmental Protection Agency to the contrary, evidence now shows that Bt-toxin can damage human cells as well.
A study published in February 2012,15 “documented that modified Bt-toxins [from GM plants] are not inert on human cells, but can exert toxicity.” In concentrations that are generally higher than that produced in average Bt corn, Bt-toxin disrupts the membrane in just 24 hours, causing fluid to leak out. The authors note, “This may be due to pore formation like in insect cells.”
The other primary assumption touted by regulators was that Bt-toxin would be fully broken down during digestion in our stomach. But a 2011 Canadian study conducted disproved that one as well. They discovered that 93 percent of the pregnant women tested had Bt-toxin from Monsanto’s corn in their blood. And so too did 80 percent of their unborn fetuses.16
If the Bt-toxin had entered the blood through holes that it created, it is likely that bacteria and food particles also get through and cause problems. Bt-toxin’s presence in the fetus is of greater concern. Since fetuses do not have a fully developed blood brain barrier, the hole-poking toxin may be active in their brains as well.
The authors of this Canadian study were faced with a question, “Why did so many of their subjects have Bt-toxin in their blood.” The toxin is expected to wash out of our bloodstream quickly. Therefore the consumption of Bt-toxin must be quite frequent for 93 percent of subjects to still have it in their blood. But this was Canada. And unlike Mexico, they don’t eat corn chips and corn tortillas every day. They do eat lots of corn derivatives like corn sweeteners, but these highly processed foods no longer have the Bt-toxin present and therefore could not be the source.
But livestock in North America do eat Bt corn as a main component of their diets. And Canadians eat the meat and dairy products of these corn-fed animals every day. The authors speculated that the source of the Bt-toxin in the blood must have been the meat or dairy. While this may be true, there’s another possible explanation with very serious consequences for those who eat GMOs.
Living Pesticide Factories Inside Us
In spite of additional numerous claims by the biotech industry that it would never happen, research confirmed that part of the DNA “transgene” inserted into GMO crops could actually transfer into the DNA of our gut bacteria.17 Part of the gene from Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans had integrated into the DNA of the intestinal flora of three out of seven subjects tested. Furthermore, that gut bacteria was not killed when exposed to Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate—a strong antibiotic. This suggests (but doesn’t yet prove) that the transferred genes from GMOs continue to function after they have transferred into our gut bacteria. If so, we may have GM proteins continuously produced inside our intestines long after we stop eating GMOs. Although no one has tested for it, if Bt-toxin genes transfer from corn chips or tortillas into gut bacteria, they may turn our intestinal flora into living pesticide factories, producing BT toxin 24/7.
Whether BT toxin is produced by our own intestinal bacteria or simply consumed in our food, it may contribute not only to leaky gut and the numerous disorders associated with that, but also to the rise in gastrointestinal disorders in the United States. Many of these have increased noticeably since the introduction of BT corn.
If our digestive system is not functioning properly, then food particles are not broken down as quickly or as completely. This can create several problems:
- Poor absorption of food. Without sufficient nutrition, overall health, including immune system health, can suffer.
- Proteins can remain intact longer, where they become the “food” of pathogenic gut bacteria, leading to overgrowth. This further compromises digestion and immunity.
- When proteins putrefy, they can release excess hydrogen sulfide (as toxic as cyanide gas) which irritates and inflames the mucous membranes.
- Undigested proteins, especially in combination leaky gut, have a greater likelihood of provoking autoimmune reactions, in which the immune system attacks parts of the body.
Celiac disease damages gut wall
In celiac patients, the immune system adversely responds to gluten proteins, causing flattening of the microvilli along the intestinal walls. These cells are what absorb broken down food into the bloodstream for use by the whole body. Normally, they stick out like tiny fingers, dramatically increasing the surface area that can be used for digestion (the surface area of the intestinal villi of a healthy human being is the size of a tennis court). When flattened, the surface area for absorption is drastically reduced. Thus, celiac patients often suffer from a variety of disorders related to poor digestion.
To make things worse, when the wall of the intestines are irritated (in the case of celiac disease or in general) the body produces less of a substance called CCK (cholecystokinin). This, in turn, reduces the digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas, as well as the bile produced in the liver. Without sufficient levels, digestion is slowed down, particularly of proteins. Thus, gluten intolerance carries a one-two punch: reducing digestion by damaging cell walls, and exacerbating malabsorption of nutrients by reducing digestive enzymes and bile.
GMOs can Damage GI Tract
As discussed above, Bt-toxin was found to poke holes in human cells. It is certainly possible that this can disrupt the digestive ability of the gut lining, as well as lower CCK levels. A mouse study also showed that BT toxin, both in its natural state and produced in experimental GM potato, damaged microvilli in the intestines (ileum). Some microvilli were broken off and discontinuous; others were shortened.18 This is very similar to the type of damage that gluten proteins cause to the intestines.
The high levels of glyphosate-based herbicides in Roundup Ready crops may also directly damage the structure and function of the gut wall. A study on glyphosate exposure in carnivorous fish revealed remarkable adverse effects throughout the digestive system,19 including “disruption of mucosal folds and disarray of microvilli structure” in the intestinal wall, along with an exaggerated secretion of mucin throughout the alimentary tract.
Experience with livestock, both in peer-reviewed published studies and in case studies reported by farmers and veterinarians, confirm significant damage in the digestive tract for those pigs and cows fed GMOs compared to those in the non-GMO diet. Pigs fed with GMO soy and corn, for example, had stomachs that were inflamed, discolored, and had multiple ulcers. Pigs switched to non-GM soy on a Danish farm no longer died from diarrhea, ulcers, and bloat.
US farmers who butcher livestock report that the intestines of the GMO-fed animals are thin, corroded, and tear easily. Dr. Ronald Anders, an Ohio livestock veterinarian, confirms that autopsies reveal “a big difference in the liver and the intestinal tract on these animals on GMOs,” including cows, pigs, sheep, horses, and even dogs. “The livers and intestines were extremely bad on a lot of these animals,” he said.
Roundup Ready Soybeans Reduced Digestive Enzymes
Pregnant mice were fed GM soybeans, and their offspring continued on the diet for eight months. Compared to controls fed non-GMO soybeans, the pancreas suffered a profound reduction in alpha-amylase, a major enzyme that degrades carbohydrates. Young mice (one month) also had reduced amounts of a protein digesting enzyme precursor (zymogen), which is essential for healthy breakdown of the proteins in food.
When analyzing the dangerous impacts of Roundup Ready soybeans, it is unclear whether the causative factor is the genetic engineering of the plant or the high Roundup content in the food. An analysis of the properties and effects of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, shows how this toxin may contribute to many of the problems discussed in this paper.
A study on glyphosate exposure in carnivorous fish, for example, revealed remarkable adverse effects throughout the digestive system.20 The activity of protease, lipase, and amylase, important proteins involved with the digestion of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, were all decreased in the esophagus, stomach, and intestine of these fish following exposure to glyphosate. Glyphosate also has profoundly harmful effects on the bacterial living inside our intestines.
Healthy Gut Bacteria is Essential
Bacteria living inside us play a critical role in digestion, immunity, detoxification, and even the production of nutrients and precursors to important hormones. Those suffering from gluten intolerance often coped with gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and cramping-all of which indicate an imbalance in the gut flora. In fact, studies show that gluten intolerant individuals often have imbalances in their gut flora. This is especially true for those with celiac disease.21,22,23,24 While we do not know whether the gut flora imbalance precedes the sensitization to gluten, or vice versa, it is likely that both processes play a role.
Glyphosate was patented as a broad spectrum biocide; it’s a very powerful antibiotic. In tiny amounts it can dramatically reduce the population of healthy bacteria varieties in the digestive tract. Bifidobacterium, for example, is easily killed by glyphosate.25 Its loss can promote inflammation.
On the other hand, “the highly pathogenic bacteria” such as those that produce Salmonella or botulism poison “are highly resistant to glyphosate.”26 In addition to the risk of producing acute toxins, such as botulism poisoning, bacterial pathogens can activate the molecule called zonulin, which can breakdown the tight junctions in intestinal cells leading to leaky gut.27 Indeed, some of the same bacteria whose growth is stimulated through glyphosate exposure, i.e. Clostridium botulinum,28 Clostridium perfringens,29 and Salmonella infections,30 have been found to increase intestinal permeability.
Gut Bacteria on the Farm
Livestock veterinarians Dan Skow and Ronald Anders, both describe a sudden increase in gut bacteria imbalance in livestock that began when GMOs were introduced, and which persists to this day. And both have noted improvements in livestock health, including digestive and immune system health, when herds were switched to non-GMO feed.
Purdue Professor Emeritus Don Huber says that pigs fed GMOs have a “very dramatic difference in the microflora.” He says it “has a terrible odor to it compared to the normal microflora because of that changed bio environment.” Similarly, the organs and tissues are discolored, possibly due to the proliferation of this different flora.
While there is insufficient research to prove that GMO consumption causes gluten sensitivity, the evidence does show how it might at least exacerbate the symptoms, or contribute to conditions that might cause them. Instead of waiting for more research, many clinicians are now prescribing non-GMO diets to their gluten sensitive and intolerant patients, as well as those with a variety of other disorders. Reports from the clinicians and from patients are encouraging.
Chicago internist Emily Lindner, MD, for example, says “Based on my clinical experience, when I remove genetically modified foods as part of the treatment for gluten sensitivity, recovery is faster and more complete. I believe that GMOs in our diet contribute to the rise in gluten sensitivity in the U.S. population.”
Although 64 countries either ban GMOs outright or require mandatory labeling, the United States is not one of them. To avoid GMOs in America, consultwww.NonGMOShoppingGuide.com or download the free iPhone app ShopNoGMO. It contains over ten thousand products that have been third-party verified as meeting the standards of The Non-GMO Project. In addition, avoiding GMOs can be accomplished by purchasing organic products, buying brands that say Non-GMO on the label, or avoiding the “at-risk” ingredients. These include derivatives of soy, corn, cottonseed and canola oil, sugar from sugar beets, papaya from Hawaii or China, zucchini and yellow squash.