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.

Image showing that mobile phones, plastic bottles and cosmetics do not cause cancer

We regularly review new research on the causes of cancer to make sure our information is up to date and based on the best quality evidence. We develop our information by looking at lots of research carried out over many years. So, although new research comes out all the time, it is unlikely that one new study would change our position on a topic.  

Some studies are better than others at telling us about how different factors affect cancer risk. These are some of the things we consider:

  • Did the study look at cells, animals or people?

Studies in animals and cells can help scientists understand how cancer works, but they can’t always tell us how it’s relevant to humans. So we focus on studies in people.

  • How big is the study and how long did it go on for?

Studies on small numbers of people aren’t as reliable, because results are more likely to happen by chance. And studies that only follow people for a short amount of time can miss long-term effects. So we mainly look at studies that follow thousands of people over many years.

  • Did the study account for other factors that could affect someone’s cancer risk?

There are lots of factors that can affect someone’s risk of cancer. Studies should take known risk factors into account. For example, if a study is looking at air pollution and lung cancer, it should also look at whether participants smoked.

  • Where is the study published and who funded it?

It’s important to see if a study is published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. This means that other experts have checked the results. It’s also important to know who funded the study, as this can affect the findings. For example, Cancer Research UK disregards research funded by the tobacco industry.

How to find accurate information on cancer

Sometimes news outlets exaggerate stories about cancer. It’s helpful to think about some of the questions above to judge a news story. But the most important thing is to get information from a trusted source– for example our website and the NHS.

One way of knowing if you can trust health information is by checking if the Patient Information Forum (PIF) has accredited it. The PIF makes sure that information is based on up to date evidence and is high quality.

The Patient Information Forum tick looks like this.

Patient Information Tick

You can read more about spotting fake news on cancer on our blog.

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.

 

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