And Why the Chemicals on GMOs are “Bad”
Only 4 years ago, I was standing in a room packed full of food-centered businesses who were eagerly awaiting the approval of nutrition experts from all around the world. Amongst the hot-seat companies was one particular company who was not selling any food at all. In fact, many people believe that this company exists to provide more food to those who do not have enough to eat. There are also many others would otherwise argue that they would rather see these foods burned to ashes than to ever be eaten by any human beings… It was Monsanto.
With hundreds of food companies, and thousands of dietitians, I did not expect myself to be one of “those people” who would wind up in a conversation with Monsanto. But the conversation I had with their high-level representative truly changed the way that I will think of food for forever.
What are GMO foods?
Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs for short, are foods that have been genetically modified in a lab and are reproduced by collecting the seeds.
Typically, the reason that these foods are modified in the first place is so that they can live through the process of being sprayed by certain pesticides and herbicides that would otherwise spoil them. These pesticides and herbicides are sprayed on our foods to kill the bugs and weeds that would otherwise impair them from growing. A few of the foods that are most commonly genetically modified in America are wheat (what we use to make bread, pasta, flour, pastries, crackers, etc.) soy (what we use to make soybean oil, soy milk, and soy protein) and corn (such as in high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, and corn chips). These foods also tend to be some of the main ingredients in what makes up a significant portion of the Average American Diet.
The area of study that has been supported by research in more recent years does not revolve around the genetically modified plants themselves, but actually it is the chemical that is being sprayed on these genetically modified, pesticide-resistant foods. This is where products like Bayer’s glyphosate (Formerly Monsanto’s product) comes into conversation.
What is Roundup and What is Glyphosate?
Roundup Ready® is an herbicide that contains an active ingredient, known as glyphosate, that kills weeds. Glyphosate foods consist of more than 80% of the foods in this country that are genetically modified1. Foods that are commonly produced using glyphosate-resistant crops, such as soybean, consists of 94% of all soybean crop in the United States2.
Over the past 46 years, glyphosate has been on the market in efforts to enhance the production yields in farmer’s crops. There has been a growing area of concern that glyphosate could specifically affect human health. While numerous research studies have shown that glyphosate does not affect the metabolic processes of human cells, glyphosate does affect an array of bacterial cells1 – many of which reside in the human gut.
How Does Glyphosate Affect our Gut (Microbiome)?
The number of species (let alone the number of bacterial cells in the first place) that exist in the human body is a remarkable number filled with complex chemical reactions and interactions that are dependent on our own personal genetic profile, content of our diet, and many other factors as well!!! There is still a considerable amount of research that is currently developing within this realm, so this nutrition blog post in particular is aimed at observing the most accepted mechanisms through which glyphosate indirectly affects the human body via the microbiome – our gut bacteria and ecosystem.
The Gut. And the Shikimate Pathway
The exact mechanism in which glyphosate is able to kill off weeds (that are not genetically modified to otherwise survive this process) is through a pathway in plants and bacteria known as the shikimate pathway3.
The shikimate pathway is directly responsible for synthesizing aromatic amino acids including tryptophan, phenylalanine and tyrosine4. It is important to note that both tryptophan and phenylalanine are what is known as “essential amino acids”, and that impairment of the production and absorption of these protein building-blocks in the gut may lead to an insufficiency of these amino acids in the body5.
Essential and Aromatic Amino Acids
As a healthcare professional, I can speak to the experience of once learning about amino acids and how they are characterized as the “building blocks” of proteins. Proteins in nature are highly functional, machine-like tools in our body. They make things like bones, organ cells, muscle tissue, hormones and energy itself. Aromatic amino acids are no different from the rest! Aromatic amino acids are the building blocks for proteins that make up vitally important players in the functioning of our bodies. There are 3 aromatic amino acids6:
- Tryptophan – is the initial precursor for the biosynthesis of many hormones and neurotransmitters including serotonin and melatonin. It is an “essential” amino acid which means that it is essential to get this nutrient exclusively through what we consume because we are physically incapable of making it ourselves!
- Tyrosine – is essential for the production of thyroxine, a hormone in our thyroid that increases our metabolic rate. It is important for many other bodily functions as well!
- Phenylalanine – an amino acid that is capable of being converted into tyrosine.
Our gut bacteria are not genetically modified to survive the herbicide glyphosate’s targeted destruction of the shikimate pathway in plant and bacterial cells3. This chemical has been shown to kill plant cells (who need the shikimate pathway to generate photosynthesis) and impairs our gut bacteria from synthesizing the essential aromatic amino acids that we need to absorb through our gut in order to build hormones and neurotransmitters such as thyroxine and serotonin.
Evidence Regarding Shikimic Acid Build-Up and Cancer
In September 2016, Monsanto agreed to sell their brand to a company called Bayer. In 2019, a study performed by the University of Berkley California reported that the when exposed to glyphosate, the relative risk for developing a cancer know as Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma was increased by 41%7. On June 24th, 2020, Bayer agreed to $10 billion in settlements for lawsuits filed against them; many of which related to accusations for this specific type of cancer.
While research is still developing to identify the exact mechanisms in which shikimic acid may be creating a pro-carcinogenic environment in the human body, a number of other health-related mechanisms have been proposed to occur as a result of glyphosate exposure:
- Excess synthesis of phenolic compounds (associated with glyphosate exposure). This is perhaps a compensatory mechanism for lack of sulfate transport in the body.
- Lack of tryptophan may lead to obesity via sequestering by macrophages due to inflammation. Extreme lack of tryptophan can also lead to nutrient absorption.
- Dysruption of endothelial nitric oxide synthase may create an enviroment in the body that could lead to hardening of the vasculature. This is a proposed mechanism for increased risk of hypertension and heart disease.
Reflection and Summary
So to get back to the story of the conversation that I had with the high-level representative from Monsanto, the rest conversation went a little bit like this:
Me: What about the toxic chemicals that are being used in Roundup? Research shows that they are able to cross the placenta in pregnant human women and may affect the fetus! What about that?
Her: You do know that even organic pesticides contain toxic chemicals right? Just because something is “organic” does not mean that it is chemical free!
And sure enough, she was right. I did a little bit of research around the organic chemicals she named off. And yes, some of them do cause inflammation in the body. However, the interesting thing about organic pesticide chemicals is that even though they can generate free radical cascades (which can lead to inflammation), these organic chemicals do not alter the gut microbiome in the same way that glyphosate does.
What I believe we all need to take away from this conversation is that literally ALL foods are imperfect. Yes, there will be some pro-inflammatory chemical on any given piece of produce, organic or not. But just because there is no such thing as a perfect food doesn’t mean that we still don’t try to be better and nourish our bodies to the absolute best of our abilities!! We have so much more knowledge about nutrition than we did even just a few decades ago. We can use this information to empower ourselves to make easy choices (and sometimes hard choices too!) so that we can live an even more fulfilling and higher quality life.
Helping others achieve a higher quality life is what my job is all about! If nutrition is something that you are interested in learning more of, I work with a number of health insurance companies to make nutrition coaching affordable and practical. More often than not, Americans qualify for at least 3 sessions with a registered dietitian every year!!! This is a benefit that less than 10% of the people who qualify are taking advantage of. Chances are you are one of them! Contact me today to find out what your benefits are and let’s get you started on a plan for healthier living today!
- Samsel A., Seneff S. Glyphosates Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases. Entropy. 2013;15(1):1416-1463.
- Shahbandeh, M., Percent of Genetically Modified Crops in the U.S. by type 1997, 2018, 2019 & 2020. Agriculture. July 2020.
- Hollander H., Amrhein N. The Site of the Inhibition of the Shikimate Pathway by Glyphosate. Plant Physiology. 1980;66(1):823-829.
- Tzin V., Galili G. The Biosynthetic Pathways for Shikimate and Aromatic Amino Acids in Arabidopsis thaliana, The Arabidopsis Book. American Society of Plant Biologists.8:e0132. doi:10.1199/tab.0132.
- Paley, E. Diet-Related Metabolic Perturbations of Gut Microbial Shikimate Pathway-Tryptamine-tRNA Aminoacylation-Protein Synthesis in Human Health and Disease. International Journal of Tryptophan Research. 2019;12(1):1-19.
- Key Laboratory of Tropical Biological Resources of Ministry of Education, College of Life Sciences and Pharmacy, Hainan University, Haikou, China, (2) Department of Chemistry, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, United States, 3 Department of Biochemistry, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, United States.
- Zhang L., Rana I., Shaffer R., Taioli E., Sheppard L. Exposure to Glyphosate-Based Herbicides and Risk for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma: A Meta-Analysis and Supporting Evidence. Mutation Research.2019;781(1):186-206.