Do genetically modified foods cause cancer?
No, there’s no reliable evidence to suggest genetically modified (GM) foods cause cancer.
In the US, where GM foods are more common, we haven’t seen more cases of cancer linked to their introduction in the 1990s.
But since they are relatively new products, ongoing research is required to monitor their impact on our health.
How do I know if a food has been genetically modified or contains GM ingredients?
GM foods are not common in the UK. The main use of common GM crops, such as corn and soybean, are in animal feeds. GM foods are not currently grown in the UK to be sold.
GM foods can only be sold if it has been decided that they:
- Do not present a risk to health
- Do not mislead consumers
- Do not have less nutritional value than their non-GM counterpart
In the EU (including in the UK), foods must say on their label if they:
- Contain or consist of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
- Contain ingredients produced from GMOs
What are GM foods or GMOs?
Genetic modification means the gene of a living thing has been changed or altered in a way that doesn’t occur naturally. This means plants or animals can be produced with a specific quality, such as being more resistant to disease. These plants and animals are called genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
There are many cancer myths, including genetically modified (GM) foods, that haven’t been proven to cause cancer. However, there are proven causes of cancer, and things you can do to reduce your risk.
We regularly review and evaluate newly published research into the causes of cancer in order to shape our health information. And there are key things we look out for to evaluate any new study.
What type of study is it?
Was the study looking at cells in a dish, animals or people? Studies in animals and cells can help scientists understand the basics of cancer but they cannot replicate how things will work in humans.
So, we focus more on studies in people as they can show with much more certainty how something affects the risk of developing cancer in humans. The best studies also account for other factors that could affect someone’s cancer risk, such as whether they smoke or drink.
How many people were in the study, and how long were they followed for? Studies involving only a handful of people aren’t likely to be as reliable, because results are more likely to happen by chance. And studies that only follow people for a short timeframe can miss any potential long-term effects. Therefore, we mainly look at studies that follow hundreds or usually thousands of people for a long time because they give results we can be surer of.
Who carried out the study and where is it published?
It’s important to see if a study was published in a scientific journal and was carried out by scientists that work for a university or known institute. This is because before researchers can publish their findings in a journal, other experts who were not involved in the study will check it is accurate.
How does the study fit in with previous evidence?
Some studies show conflicting results, but we evaluate any new study within the context of all the available research and give more weight to the most rigorous scientific studies.
How to spot fake news about cancer?
Sometimes news outlets can over-inflate stories about cancer, whether it’s a new treatment, or news on what could lower or increase your risk of developing the disease. You can use the same questions we discussed above to judge a study and news story yourself. For more tips on how to spot fake news visit our blog here.
National Academies of Sciences E, and Medicine; Division on Earth and Life Studies; Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources; Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects. Human Health Effects of Genetically Engineered Crops. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2016.
Snell C, Bernheim A, Berge JB, et al. Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: a literature review. Food and chemical toxicology : an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association. 2012;50:1134-1148.
Food Standards Agency. Genetically modified foods. Vol 2019. https://www.food.gov.uk/safety-hygiene/genetically-modified-foods: FSA; 2018.