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Does Eating “Organic” Really Matter?

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 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.) as well as 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 rather 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 Bacterial (Microbiome) Cells?

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 acids :

Tryptophanis 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 to impair 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 in the realm for identifying the exact mechanisms in which
  • Excess synthesis of phenolic compounds (associated with glyphosate exposure)

o Perhaps a compensatory mechanism for lack of sulfate transport
  • Lack of tryptophan may lead to obesity via sequestering by macrophages due to inflammation

o Extreme lack of tryptophan can lead to nutrient absorption
  • Dysruption of endothelial nitric oxide synthase

Reflection and Summary

So to get back to the story of the conversation that I had with the high-level representative from Monsanto, the 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 took away from this conversation is that it's important to critically assess and understand the complexities of the chemicals used in various pesticides, regardless of whether they are labeled as "organic" or not. While both conventional and organic pesticides may contain toxic chemicals, their impact and mechanisms of action can differ significantly. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, has been linked to potential effects on the gut microbiome, whereas some organic pesticides may generate inflammation but not necessarily affect the gut microbiome in the same manner. This highlights the need for thorough research and careful consideration when evaluating the potential risks and benefits associated with different types of pesticides.

1. 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.
2. Shahbandeh, M., Percent of Genetically Modified Crops in the U.S. by type 1997, 2018, 2019 & 2020. Agriculture. July 2020.
3. Hollander H., Amrhein N. The Site of the Inhibition of the Shikimate Pathway by Glyphosate. Plant Physiology. 1980;66(1):823-829.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
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