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The Debate Over So-Called Super Foods

Since 1994, the amount of foods developed using advanced biotechnology has seen an incredible rise in domestic and international markets.

At least 40 common vegetables, dairy products, and hundreds of processed foods contain genes from viruses, bacteria, insects, flowers and even animals. These unmarked and unlabeled foods account for about 60-70 percent of the foods currently on grocery shelves to varying degrees of genetic alteration.

The FDA is hard pressed as to why this issue has become such a cause for concern. Hybridization of plants has been going on since the late 19th century, when Gregor Mendel discovered that characteristics in pea plants could be inherited. Scientists have been improving plants by changing their genetic makeup, typically done through hybridization. This is how the traditional method works:

STEP 1: Two related plants are cross-fertilized (producing offspring with characteristics of both parent plants).

STEP 2: Breeders then selectively reproduce the offspring with the desired traits.

Read below to see how bioengineering differs from traditional hybridization.

What are Bioengineered Foods?

Today, scientists are able to insert a single gene into a crop to give it new, advantageous characteristics. About half of the American soybean crop planted in 1999, for example, carries a gene that makes it resistant to an herbicide used to control weeds. Also, about a quarter of U.S. corn planted in 1999 contains a gene that produces a protein toxic to certain caterpillars, eliminating a need for certain pesticides.

Conventional techniques are often imprecise because they shuffle thousands of genes, causing offspring to have some of the characteristics of each parent plant. With biotechnology tools, a gene can be inserted into a plant to give it a specific new characteristic instead of mixing all of the genes from two plants and seeing what comes out. Proponents say this technology provides much more precision to what characteristic breeders give a new plant.


What Genes Do Breeders Put In Crop Plants?

Plant researchers look for genes that will benefit the farmer, the food processor, or the consumer. So far, most of the changes have helped the farmer, but researchers also seek to develop crops with enhanced nutritional properties.

Foods such as tomatoes, peas, peppers, tropical fruit, broccoli, raspberries, melons, potatoes, corn, lettuce, coffee and more have been altered to produce the following:

  • Retain flavor and appearance during increased of shelf life.

  • Reduce use of insecticides and fungicides.

  • Reduce diseases caused by plant viruses.

  • Improve weed control.

  • Increase the amount of ssential amino acids, vitamins or other nutrients in plants.

  • Improve processing quality.

  • Naturally decaffeinate coffee.

Do The Altered Genes Affect Humans?

The FDA says it has seen no evidence that the bioengineered foods currently on the market pose any human health concerns or that they are less safe than traditional bred crops.

They assert that the proteins produced are nontoxic, rapidly digestible, and do not have the characteristics of proteins known to cause allergies.

In response to criticism that inserting new DNA into the plant's chromosome can disrupt the function of other genes or alter the level of nutrients or toxins, the FDA says that these kinds of effects can happen with any type of plant breeding, not just biotechnical.





How Are The Super Foods Regulated In The US?

They are regulated by three federal agencies: the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. FDA is responsible for the safety and labeling of all foods and animal feeds derived from crops. The EPA regulates pesticides and the USDA oversees the agricultural environmental safety of planting and field testing genetically engineered plants.

No matter how a new crop is created, traditionally or using biotechnology tools, breeders are required by the USDA to conduct field testing for several seasons to make sure only desirable changes have been made. They must check to make sure the plant looks right, grows right, and produces food that tastes right. They also must perform analytical tests to see how the levels of nutrients have changed and whether the food is still safe to eat.

As for the FDA, under the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, companies have a legal obligation to ensure that any food they sell meets the safety standards of the law. This applies equally to conventional food and bioengineered food. If a food does not meet the safety standard, FDA has the authority to take it off the market.

Companies send the FDA documents summarizing the information and data they have generated to demonstrate that a bioengineered food is as safe as the conventional food. The documents describe the genes they use: whether they are from a commonly allergenic plant, the characteristics of the proteins made by the genes, their biological function, and how much of them will be found in the food, and any other information about the safety and use of the product.


Critics feel that the standards for testing these products are not the same as for other new prodcts seeking FDA approval and that the testing has not been done of the long-term to fully determine side effects. Opponents to the super foods cite these as potential problems:

  • Imprecise technology.

  • Major crop failure.

  • Unexpected mutations creating new and higher levels of toxins in foods.

  • Allergic reactions.

  • Antibiotic resistant bacteria.

  • Food chain ecology may be damaged.

  • Nutritional value may decrease without consumer awareness because of food's fresher appearance.

  • Once genetically engineered organisms, bacteria and viruses are released into the environment it is impossible to contain or recall them.

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