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Surprising Super Bowl VIPs: GMO Beer and Cheese

Cornelia Poku
Cornelia Poku
January 29, 2020

What says Super Bowl more than free flowing beer, and bottomless cheese dips? Oh, the delicious taste of GMOs. That’s right, G-M-O. More foods than we realize, including beer and cheese, owe their flavors and process to a natural or scientific form of genetic modification.

In an article for Forbes, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science, and Biostatistics Steven Salzberg discusses a recent study that demonstrates just how many of our foods were modified before humans could even get them into labs.

“It turns out that many common foods have already been genetically modified, by a bacterium called Agrobacterium… And, in news that should be even more frightening to the anti-GMO crowd, these foods are transgenic: they contain genetic material from completely different species.”

Agrobacterium is a bacterium found in nature that has evolved over time to be somewhat of a super bacterium. Its ecosystem role is finding “wounded” plants and inserting its DNA into the genome of said plants. Agrobacterium’s sneaky little role in history is responsible for all the 291 cultivated varieties of sweet potatoes. So yes, those delicious vegan, organic, sweet potato fries with natural Himalayan sea salt are nature’s little GMO.

In the US, there are only 10 intentionally genetically engineered foods that are commercially available. But here are some GMOs that happened in nature:

  • Bananas
  • Beer hops
  • Cranberries
  • Date-plums
  • Guava
  • Peanuts
  • Pomelo Fruit
  • Suriname cherry
  • Tea
  • Walnuts
  • Yams

Salzberg’s article only focuses on GMOs that contain agrobacterium, however there are many favorite foods that are or contain some form of gene editing or gene-modification like cheese. Cheese is made of rennet which is usually a GMO. Rennet is an enzyme that curdles milk, which is what becomes cheese. Before the early 1990’s, rennet could only be found in the lining of calf stomachs. But thanks to biotechnology, researchers have been able to create rennet using genetically modified bacterium and yeast cells for the past 30 years.

Despite 80-90% of US cheese being essentially a GMO, cheese is rarely mentioned in the debate about GM labeling. In fact, in Vermont, a state known for its historical cheese culture, the 2014 GMO labeling exempted cheese from being labeled a GMO despite most cheeses almost certainly being a GMO. That just speaks to the self-awareness of GMO fearmongers and the preposterous notion that somehow GMO foods are inherently dangerous.

The primary difference between lab and nature GMOs is precision. As Salzberg wrote,

“…with traditional breeding, you have no idea what exactly you changed in the plant's DNA. And humans have already consumed billions of servings of GM foods with no ill effects. The GM foods we eat today are perfectly safe.”

This Super Bowl season forget about all the confusingly labeled foods and focus on what’s delicious. Want more GMO info? Check out GMOAnswers.