Beyond Additives: Foods Nature Never Made

By Carol Ann Rinzler

Genetically engineered foods, also known as GMOs or bioengineered foods, are foods with extra genes added artificially through special laboratory processes. Like preservatives, flavor enhancers, and other chemical boosters, the genes — which may come from plants, animals, or microorganisms such as bacteria — are used to make foods more resistant to disease and insects, more nutritious, and better tasting.

Genetic engineering may also help plants and animals grow faster and larger, thus increasing the food supply. The Big Question is, “Are genetically engineered foods safe?”

Many consumers have doubts. To enable them to make a clear choice — “Yes, I’ll take that biotech food” or “No, I won’t” — the European Union requires food labels to specifically state the presence of any genetically altered ingredients. In the United States, the FDA currently requires wording on labels to alert consumers to genetic engineering only when it results in an unexpected added allergen (such as corn genes in tomatoes) or changes the nutritional content of a food.

Does the wording on the label matter to consumers? Are most willing to accept genetically altered foods? The answer depends on who you ask and how you ask.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC), a trade group for the food industry, accepts the current label-wording rules. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, wants to see the words genetically altered on all foods that have been, well, genetically altered. In 2005, each organization conducted a survey that seemed designed to bolster its point of view.

For example, IFIC’s survey says that nearly two-thirds (61 percent) of Americans expect food technology to serve up better-quality, better-tasting food. CSPI’s competing survey says, “Not so fast.” The difference may lie in the questions. IFIC’s emphasizes the benefits of biotech; CSPI’s leans more heavily on the drawbacks. For example:

  • CSPI Version: Would you buy food labeled “genetically engineered”? Forty-three percent said yes.
  • IFIC Version: Would you buy a food if it had been modified by biotechnology to taste better or fresher? Or stay fresher? Fifty-four percent said yes.

Ten years later, little has changed. In 2015, when the Neilsen company conducted an online poll of 30,000 people in 60 countries about which health benefits they considered “very important” when buying food, the two top answers were “all-natural” and “GMO-free.”

In the end, despite a slight wariness about exploring new nutritional ground, Americans are intrigued by the promise of food innovations and willing to give the whole idea a try. Only 32 percent of them considered “GMO-free” very important versus 47 percent in Europe and 46 percent in Latin America.

Eventually, the proof of GMOs’ promise will be in the (genetically engineered) pudding.