Apples that don't turn brown when sliced? That could transform cooking -- and certainly improve bagged lunches. But what if the apples were genetically modified -- would consumers still buy them? What about new kinds of potatoes that don't bruise?
That's the dilemma faced by two companies trying to get genetically modified potatoes that don't bruise and apples that don't brown into grocery stores. The food is the latest development from scientists who tweak the DNA of fruits, vegetables and other food to make them more resistant to bugs and improve their qualities.
Yet even while the research presses ahead, many consumers remain leery of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Millennials in particular crave natural, organic food, researchers say. Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) and other restaurant chains have responded by using healthier ingredients, including meat that hasn't been treated with antibiotics.
Meanwhile, the anti-GMO movement is becoming more organized. Organizations say the plants are unsafe, and are helping to create "super weeds" and "super bugs" that can only be killed with potent herbicides. In Washington state, voters considered a 2013 proposal to require labeling for all food that contained GMOs. Food and biotech companies poured some $22 million into an opposition campaign, far outspending the proponents, and the proposal was shot down at the polls.
Farmers and companies developing genetically modified seeds say the technology reduces the need for chemical pesticides and increases crop yields. It also increases farmer profits.
The controversy is already impacting the developers of the genetically modified apples and potatoes. The Food and Drug Administration approved the engineered foods on Friday, calling them "as safe and nutritious as their conventional counterparts."
It was a small victory for the two companies behind the food. J.R. Simplot, an Idaho company, won approval for six varieties of potatoes, while the Canadian company Okanagan Specialty Fruits got the green light for two kinds of apples. The FDA review isn't mandatory, but the companies asked for one.
The apples are named Arctic Apples, and will initially be sold in the Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties. Sliced apples currently sold in stores are washed in Vitamin C and other antioxidants to prevent browning. As much as 40 percent of the cost of those bagged apples is the antioxidant treatment, Okanagan president Neal Carter told National Public Radio. The cost savings "can be huge," he added.
The company stopped apple browning by inserting extra copies of genes that already existed in the fruit. The genes are the ones that cause browning, but adding extra copies turn off the browning reaction completely, NPR reports.
The potato varieties, which include two kinds of russets, are under the Innate brand. Simplot is distributing its 2014 crop in small test markets, and isn't saying how those potatoes will be labeled.
With the FDA approval behind them, the two companies now face what could be a much bigger fight: consumer adoption. McDonald's (MCD) already refuses to use genetically modified potatoes, and said it will avoid the Simplot varieties. Food suppliers ConAgra and McCain also said they will not use the potatoes, according to The Associated Press.
Simplot says the potatoes have major benefits, including an absence of acrylamide, a chemical released when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures. Acrylamide may cause cancer, though scientists aren't sure it could be a carcinogen in food.
The apples and potatoes are years away from appearing in grocery stores, it's worth noting. In the meantime, the companies producing them will have to convince wary consumers to give them a shot.
Twitter users were divided over news about the FDA's approval. "No more yucky apples!" wrote one. "Oh Lord we're finished," added another.