Food for Thought

The good and bad of using technology to modify what we eat.


Eating healthy, getting plenty of rest and exercising regularly are the main ingredients in the recipe for wellness and fitness. But with today’s hectic lifestyles and hurried pace, do most of us still meet these basic requisites?

Over the years, multiple programs have been launched to optimize the nutritional content of the foods we eat. Since the early 1900s, breakfast cereals have been fortified with added vitamins and minerals. More recently, infusing chewing gum with dietary supplements is being tried as a way to reduce vitamin deficiencies. And then there are higher technology – but smaller than the cellular level – means of increasing the nourishing value of food.

One of today’s hottest and most controversial topics is genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In general, these are foods that have had their genetic composition altered. For example, the genes of farm-raised animals and plants can be modified to make them grow faster, making them more readily available as food sources. Typically, the purpose of this genetic modification is to intentionally introduce an intended change in the organism’s gene sequence. Of course, the wisdom of doing this is subject to debate.

Less widely known and distinctly different from modified organisms are edited ones. In a genetically edited organism, a gene is not altered. Instead, a gene is taken away using technologies such as clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats (CRISPR). In one study, Dr. Yinong Yang at Pennsylvania State University removed a tiny piece of DNA from a specifically targeted gene in white button mushrooms. This caused the fungi to produce a lower amount of the polyphenol oxidase enzyme, leading the mushroom to turn brown more slowly. In this way, an undesirable trait was edited out of the organism.

But DNA editing can do more than keep our foods looking good. Minnesota-based Calyxt, a subsidiary of the French pharmaceutical firm Cellectis, has developed a way to “turn off” the genes responsible for trans fats in soybean oil, making the altered oil healthier and less likely to raise the cholesterol of consumers.

Even without CRISPR, most of the food we eat today has been “genetically modified” by man over the centuries. Through practices such as conventional breeding and artificial selection, many of today’s foods look different than they originally did. For instance, carrots were not orange until the 1700s, tomatoes used to be the size of marbles and the corn that recently adorned our Thanksgiving tables is distinctively different from its ancestral small-eared, less palatable maize.

Although some news sources have reported that genetically edited foods will not be regulated, that is not entirely inaccurate. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) told Penn State’s Dr. Yang that it would not regulate his altered mushrooms since no new DNA was introduced and there are no problems associated with weeds or becoming a pest to other plants. However other agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do monitor the edible safety and nutritional value of gene-edited foods — but only if the food maker requests a consultation. Obviously this fast-evolving area is murky at best.

But the potential for doing good is enormous. If keeping our fruits and vegetables from browning is within grasp, what will the future bring in terms of crops that not only pack more nutritious benefit, but which also resist disease, withstand drought and thrive while reducing water and chemical usage?

So does genetically edited food represent a leap forward that helps us get more of the nutrients we need while also ensuring a more plentiful food supply for hungry people worldwide? Or is it Frankenfood, a monstrous man-made creation that violates the laws of nature?

Personally, I’d hate to think it is the latter. As the saying goes, you are what you eat.

Leave a Reply

(Note: This name will be displayed publicly)