Bonnie Modugno, MS, RDHealth Blog - Nutrition

GMO Salmon: What the science can’t tell us

Published on 2010-09-16 by Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD

A recent editorial in the LA Times (I readily found in the Olympian) chastised the FDA for foot dragging on a fabulous new food. Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, champions the FDA approval of genetically modified Salmon. This salmon grows more than twice as fast since the gene that promotes growth during the warmer months is fixed so it never turns off.

I can’t disagree more with the author. There is reason to be cautious, and I am not at all convinced that this food is safe in the fullest sense. While Dr. Miller is appalled “regulators chose the most risk-averse and burdensome approach”, there is reason to be cautious. FDA does not have such a good track record when it comes to approving novel food ingredients. Partially hydrogenated oils (trans fat), high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners are the first debacles that come to mind.


During the early 1900s a German chemist invented partially hydrogenated fats (trans fats). The more saturated fat was less vulnerable to oxidation. That means it would not get rancid quickly and would allow products to stay fresher on the shelf for a longer period of time. It was a boon to the food industry.

By 1911 Crisco was on store shelves with handy recipes for homemakers. In 1958 partially hydrogenated fat was grandfathered into the Food and Drug Act of 1958 as “Generally Regarded as Safe” (GRAS). Scientists didn’t see any risk from the marginal studies done at the time. Since trans fats had been in the food supply for so long (my italics), it was assumed that the ingredient posed little risk.

As more and more prepared food was introduced into the marketplace, trans fats became a dominant ingredient in bakery goods, as well as fried and packaged foods. Eventually, more than 98% of all liquid shortening used in the food industry would be partially hydrogenated.

For decades Americans have been admonished for eating excessive saturated fats. Since the 1970’s margarine made with partially hydrogenated fat was promoted as a superior nutritional choice to butter.

Ironically scientists in food technology began to question this thinking in the early 1990s. Concern from the public health sectors didn’t really hit the radar until a decade later. Today we know partially hydrogenated fats are far worse than the feared saturated fats that they replaced.


There are still many nutritionists who want to claim sugar is sugar. I am not convinced.

High fructose corn sweetener (HFCS) was developed by Japanese scientists in the 1970s and we haven’t looked back. Derived from subsidized corn in this country, HFCS is a far cheaper product to produce than anything we can produce from sugar cane or beets. Products made with HFCS are also cheaper.

USDA data monitors the costs of foods. In one study looking between 1985 and 2000 the contrast in escalating food costs says it all. During that 15 year period fresh fruits and vegetables increased 118%. The cost of soda (made almost exclusively with HFCS) increased only 20%. In real dollars, soda was cheaper to buy in 2000 than it was in 1985.

It’s not surprising that people who need to watch their pennies fill up on cheaper foods. The problem is when adulterated food ingredients get introduced into the food supply without adequate testing. Why is it that only after over 30 years we are engaged in a controversy about the role of HFCS and obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and the like?

There is growing evidence that HFCS does not metabolize in the body or impact appetite regulation in the brain in the same way as sucrose, typical white table sugar. In addition, HFCS cannot function as fructose in fruits. While the fructose may be the same molecule, the role of fiber and water content of the fruit changes the overall metabolic impact. It is disingenuous to assume that HFCS is the same as either fructose alone or more traditional sources of sugar.


Artificial sweetening agents are some of the most studied molecules in food history. There should be ample evidence that they are “safe”. But science can’t really do that. It can’t tell us what is safe. Science can only provide evidence that it doesn’t cause the harm that is looked for.

When it comes to sweetening agents the unilateral focus has been on potential carcinogenicity. Does it cause cancer? The metabolic implications have mostly been ignored.

I find most artificial sweeteners tend to enhance the desire for sweet. Some research suggests that the body secretes insulin in response to the sweet taste–even without the calories. It is thought that this mechanism may be why some people don’t lose fat weight despite their use of artificial sweeteners to minimize calorie intake.

A suggested mechanism is that the insulin drives down blood sugar, only causing a rebound hunger. The dieter ends up wanting to eat more, especially more starchy and sweet foods. The resulting food intake often more than compensates for the skipped calories earlier in the day. No weight loss, and sometimes weight gain can ensue.


Each of these food ingredients had to be approved by the FDA to enter the food supply. There is great financial and political pressure in the process. Not all scientists are altruistic and too often business interests trump the public good.

Henry Miller underscores industry’s influence in the body of his editorial. His primary argument for approving GMO salmon reads: “an entire innovative business sector burdened with a policy that inflates research and development costs, inhibits innovation and deprives consumers of health-promoting and less-expensive products”


We have chased lower food prices for decades and we are paying very expensive medical bills as a result. It is time to recognize the fact that cheap food isn’t really cheap. Most people don’t realize how historically cheap their grocery bill is. In the late 1940’s the average person spent 27% of their income on food. Today it is less than 10%. We are not spending all that much money on food.

I say let the FDA can take all the time they need to assess the fuller implications of this GMO salmon in our food supply. Just because it is nutritionally the same doesn’t mean there is no other potential problems with introducing this organism into the food supply.

Miller’s argument that the “fish to be marketed will be sterile and farmed inland, there is virtually no possibility of any sort of “genetic contamination” of the gene pool or other environmental effects” is almost laughable. How can he possibly know? There is nothing beside his expert opinion offered to support his position.

The food supply is already highly abundant and highly adulterated. There is little respect and even less money in trying to unwind the food technology push that has done much harm to the health status of Americans. Before another push from technology, I propose we stop band-aiding the problem.

Maybe it’s time to put aside the notion that we are going to adulterate our way out of the obesity-diabetes-cardiovascular disease-autoimmune disease-cancer crises. Its time to eat closer to the earth.

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