In the 1970s, researchers Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen embarked on pioneering work, manipulating DNA to create the first recombinant DNA organisms. This marked the beginning of genetic engineering, laying the groundwork for what would later evolve into genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and bioengineered foods.
The first commercially available GMO food made its debut in 1994: the Flavr Savr tomato. Engineered to delay ripening, this tomato was a milestone in biotechnology. Have you heard of it?
From this point, the range of GMO crops expanded, including varieties like pest-resistant corn, herbicide-tolerant soybeans, and vitamin-enriched rice. These advancements signaled a new era in food production.
Bioengineering nowadays plays a pivotal role in food production, despite the fact that the integration of genetically modified foods into our food systems raises critical questions about the impact of bioengineered food ingredients on human health.
So, are they good or harmful for our health? Let’s investigate this topic together.
Why do we apply bioengineering in food production?
The first impulse to start the production of bioengineered foods aimed at addressing the most repetitive challenges in the agriculture industry and in the field of human nutrition.
One of the primary reasons for developing these foods was to increase the productivity of crops. By making plants resistant to pests or tolerant to herbicides, farmers could grow more food on the same amount of land without rising costs or facing unexpected losses of yield.
Additionally, crops are often vulnerable to a wide range of pests and diseases, which can devastate yields, especially when you grow the same type of crop in repetitive intervals (as we see in modern crop farming plots). Bioengineered foods have been created to be resistant to some common pests.
For example, Bt corn has been modified to produce a protein that is toxic to specific pests, reducing the need for chemical pesticides. Similarly, some other genetically modified crop varieties have been developed to be tolerant to herbicides, which allows farmers to control weeds more effectively without harming the crop.
In other cases, bioengineering has helped to design enhanced nutritional profiles of ingredients. For instance, Golden Rice has been genetically modified to produce beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, addressing vitamin A deficiencies in some populations.
Other foods have been designed to have longer shelf lives. For example, genetically modified apples that brown less quickly have been developed to be more appealing to consumers.
Certain bioengineered crops have been changed to withstand environmental stresses like drought or salinity. This is increasingly important as climate change impacts agricultural productivity.
Bioengineered food ingredients: What foods are bioengineered?
Bioengineered foods are often misunderstood and surrounded by controversy. In theory, they are products of modern science attempting to enhance food quality and sustainability. The process of bioengineering involves transferring desired genes from one organism into another to achieve the desired outcome.
Common examples of bioengineered foods include soybeans, corn, and canola, which have been modified for better yield and resilience. These common staples have in general variety of uses, ranging from feed in animal farming, food ingredients to biofuel production.
Here are the most frequently bioengineered food ingredients and the reasons behind their modification (a more detailed source can be found on the USDA website here):
Approximately one third of the world’s corn crop is genetically modified. In the United States, 92% of this corn was grown in 2020. Bioengineered corn (BE corn) has been created mainly for insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. This helps reduce crop losses due to pests and simplifies weed control, leading to higher yields and potentially reduced use of chemical pesticides on farms.
High percentage of BE corn is used for biofuels, animal feed, and into processed foods. You can find them in quick snacks and cereal mixes.
Globally, about 75% of soybeans are bioengineered varieties. In the United States, this number rises over 90%. The primary reason for genetic modification is herbicide tolerance and resistance to insects. These modifications allow farmers to use specific herbicides that kill weeds without harming the soybean plants during their growth.
Additionally, some varieties are modified to have improved oil proportion.
Bioengineered soybeans are similarly as corn mainly used in industrial feed for animal farms and biofuel production. In our food, BE soybeans mainly occur in starches and highly processed oils. It is also a common replacement of animal protein – veggie burgers, tofu and tempeh are some examples. When buying these products, make sure you check the label to know their origin.
Cotton is another major bioengineered crop with global numbers reaching up to 80%, and over 90% in the United States. While not a food crop, cotton is often bioengineered for pest resistance and herbicide tolerance.
Bioengineered cotton has broad uses. You can find it in clothing and linen, but also in animal feed where cottonseeds provide a portion of protein content to farmed animals. This means that BE cotton can get to our diet indirectly via milk and meat of animals fed by industrial feed mixes.
One third of the global canola production originates from bioengineering varieties with the biggest producers being Canada, Australia, and the United States – these three countries grow mainly BE canola. Canola is mainly modified for herbicide tolerance and pollination control.
Canola is mainly used in biofuel production and in food application as an oil. If you buy canola oil, the chances are high that it will be almost entirely bioengineered product.
#5 Sugar beet
Over 90% of sugar beet in the United States and Canada belongs to bioengineered varieties with the modification focused to be resistant to certain herbicides. This makes weed control easier and leads to a higher yield of sugar.
Over 50% of sugar produced in the United States comes from bioengineered sugar beet, as this crop is mainly grown for the production of sugar. The problem with this sugar, though, is that you will probably not see it labeled as a bioengineered product, as it is a highly refined product that doesn’t contain detectable levels of modified DNA anymore.
#6 Papaya, Apples and Potatoes
These foods have been genetically modified to be more resistant and have longer shelf life.
The bioengineered papaya, particularly the Rainbow and SunUp varieties, were developed to be resistant to the Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRSV). This modification saved the papaya industry in Hawaii from collapse due to the devastating effects of the virus.
Bioengineered apples have appeared with special focus on not browning when cut open. The BE variety is present in the United States and Canada so far under Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and Fuji cultivars.
Some potato varieties have been modified to be insect and virus resistant. In the United States also exists a type of potato developed for less black spot bruising and decreased sugar level. Bioengineered potatoes are sold under the names Atlantic, Ranger Russet, White Russet, Russet Burbank.
#7 Golden rice
This is a special case where rice has been genetically modified to produce beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A, in rice grains. This modification aims to address Vitamin A deficiencies in regions where rice is a staple food.
In the United States (Indiana) and Canada has been currently approved the first animal food product that is of bioengineered origin. It is AquaAdvantage Salmon that has been developed to grow faster than non-engineered salmon from commercial farms.
As this article is written, there are more varieties of bioengineered food ingredients created and approved for human consumption. If you want to be careful, be mindful of ingredients used in your foods. In general, by reducing processed foods, cooking from scratch and sticking to local produce, you may be decreasing your exposure.
Bioengineered food ingredients vs GMOs: What is the difference?
The terms “bioengineered food ingredients” and “GMOs” (genetically modified organisms) are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings. Genetic modification is a broad term that encompasses various methods, including traditional practices like selective breeding, hybridization, and induced mutation, which result in changes to an organism’s genetic makeup.
Bioengineering, however, is a specific type of genetic modification. It involves precise, targeted changes to an organism’s genome using advanced biotechnology to achieve desired traits.
All bioengineered organisms are considered GMOs, but not all GMOs are bioengineered, as pointed out by Edmisten from NC State University.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs): GMOs can include any organism (animal, plant, microbe) modified through a variety of techniques, including even traditional breeding methods. Traditional breeding still can impact traits like productivity, hardiness, shape, size, and flavor. These conventional methods result in genetic changes over time.
GMOs can also be produced through selective breeding, mutagenesis, and genetic engineering. The term, therefore, encompasses a wide range of applications.
Bioengineered food ingredients: This term is used in regulatory context, particularly in the United States following the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.
“Bioengineered” refers to foods derived from organisms that have had genes directly inserted into their DNA using modern molecular biotechnology. While GMOs have been a subject of debate for decades, bioengineered foods are often viewed through a more technologically advanced lens.
What does it mean: “may contain bioengineered food ingredients?”
The label “may contain bioengineered food ingredients” on a food product indicates a possibility that the product includes ingredients that have been bioengineered or genetically modified.
This label is typically used in the following situations:
#1 Uncertainty in ingredients: If a product contains ingredients that might be bioengineered but there is no definitive confirmation, manufacturers might use this label. It is a precautionary measure to inform consumers that while bioengineered ingredients are not intentionally added, they may be present due to factors like cross-contamination or mixed sourcing.
#2 Supply chain complexity: In the global food supply chain, tracing the origin and processing method of every ingredient can be challenging. This label indicates that somewhere along the supply chain, bioengineering might have been used, even if it is not certain whether those specific ingredients ended up in the final product.
#3 Regulatory compliance: In some regions, notably the United States under the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, there are requirements to inform consumers about the presence of bioengineered ingredients. The “may contain” label helps manufacturers comply with these regulations when there is a possibility of such ingredients being present.
#4 Consumer information: This labeling is part of broader efforts to provide transparency to consumers regarding the contents of their food, allowing them to make informed choices based on their dietary preferences, allergies, or ethical considerations.
Is bioengineered food ingredient harmful to humans?
The question of whether bioengineered food ingredients are harmful to humans has been a topic of extensive debate. Drawing upon information from previous discussions on bioengineered food safety, the consensus among the scientific community and regulatory bodies is that bioengineered foods currently on the market are as safe to eat as their non-bioengineered varieties. Organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Medical Association (AMA) have stated that consuming foods containing bioengineered food ingredients are unlikely to present risks to human health.
But, as with most things in life, it is not all straightforward. Supporters point out how these food ingredients can help to grow more food in challenging environments and reduce the need for chemical pesticides at the same time. That sounds promising, especially for regions struggling with unsuitable farming conditions.
On the flip side, there are valid concerns floating around. Some people are uneasy about the ethics and potential risks of altering DNA in living organisms. Take, for instance, the incident with genetically modified soybeans that unexpectedly affected people with Brazil nut allergies because the soybeans had a gene of Brazil nut in them. It is a reminder that even well-intentioned changes can have unforeseen consequences.
Then there is the long-term perspective. History has shown us, through examples like the pesticide DDT, that what seems safe now might have hidden drawbacks that only become clear over time.
One more consequence to consider is the unpredictable side effects of genetic changes. Adding a new gene can sometimes alter a plant’s chemistry in unexpected ways, potentially leading to higher toxin levels or presence of toxins that haven’t been previously detected in the modified plant species.
So, what does this mean for us as consumers? While the science says bioengineered foods are safe, your decisions are also about making informed choices, keeping an eye on ongoing research, and weighing personal values where fresh and local food varieties that have long-term tradition in your area should top the list. What food you consume in your daily diet is a balancing act between embracing innovation and staying cautious about what we put on our tables.