By Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences
Functional foods and beverages are now being developed essentially overnight in laboratories to combat diet-related illnesses, much quicker than the pace of the seasons in conventional farms and orchards. According to Glanbia Nutritionals, most edible and drinkable natural products are certainly “functional” by themselves; they provide carbohydrates and fat for energy, protein for muscle repair, and vitamins and minerals for cell function improvement.
In the 1980s, Japan was first to formally label “functional foods” as those foods that provide health benefits beyond the natural nutrients when the food is consumed regularly and at a specified effectiveness level. The trend of functional beverages soon followed.
The Health Benefits of Functional Foods and Beverages
Functional foods and beverages target several health issues. For instance, they can enhance weight loss, assist digestion and joint function, increase muscle and bone strength, and decrease the risk factors for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
One of the functional foods, for example, is oatmeal with added fiber. The extra fiber helps to lower blood cholesterol to prevent heart disease and cleans out the digestive tract to prevent cancer.
Functional beverages include orange juice with added plant sterols to reduce blood cholesterol. Conventional beverages marketed to the public often highlight their additional ingredients; these beverages include most fruit drinks of various flavors, sports drinks, energy drinks, plant milks and enhanced water.
Functional Foods Now Includes Genetically Engineered Products
In addition to foods and beverages with fortified, enriched, and/or enhanced ingredients added after harvesting, the ever-evolving term “functional foods” now includes genetically engineered foods. The general term genetically modified organism (GMO) includes plants, animals, and even microbes whose DNA has been altered using various genetic engineering techniques.
For thousands of years, humans have used selective breeding and cross-breeding methods to modify living organisms to suit their needs. Corn, cattle, dogs and cats, for instance, have been selectively bred over generations to produce certain desirable traits. Within the last few decades, however, modern advances in biotechnology have enabled the direct modification of DNA within plants and animals – and the results are immediately evident.
One example of genetically engineered foods include genetically engineered fish with its genes tweaked to produce additional growth hormones. This modification enables salmon to grow to full size after 18 months, as compared to the normal 36 months.
Similarly, a New Zealand scientist engineered a “sunion” (a sweet onion with the enzyme that causes tears removed from the sunion) in 2008. Also, the genes within corn have been tweaked by food engineers to be resistant to specific crop pests.
Tomatoes can even have certain genes from an arctic fish inserted into them to theoretically prevent freezing. This modification decreases spoiling, creates an increased transportation distance from farm to store, and prolongs the tomato’s shelf life in stores.
How GMO-Enhanced Foods Help Farmers
The first genetically engineered produce for human consumption was introduced in the mid-1990s. Today, about 90% of the corn, soybeans and sugar beets sold in grocery stores have GMOs, and there is no specific labeling required for these products. Genetically engineered crops produce higher yields, have a longer shelf life, and are more resistant to diseases and pests.
Higher yields and a longer shelf life lead to lower prices for consumers, and pest resistance means farmers do not need to use as many pesticides in their fields. In addition to being kinder to the environment than conventionally grown crops, many people think GMO foods even taste better. In the future, GMO foods may even be engineered to contain medicinal compounds to enhance human health.
There will always be legitimate concerns when genetic engineering creates changes to an organism in a way that would never happen naturally, such as genes inserted into an organism from an entirely different organism. This change may increase the risk of unexpected allergic reactions and the possibility of the genetically engineered foreign DNA spreading to other non-GMO plants and animals.
Functional Foods and Beverages Lack Legal Definitions
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) formally defines and regulates food labels such as “lite,” “high fiber,” and “low sodium,” but there are currently no legal definitions for most functional food and beverage advertising claims. This lack of legal definition leaves consumers to decide for themselves on the legitimacy of advertiser claims before they make a purchase. The general food product label GMO required by the FDA on many advertising labels today does not indicate specific genetic modifications, such as tomatoes with added genes from arctic fish, which sounds a bit “fishy” to most people.
Numerous problems arise when technology is used to try to solve problems that do not necessarily require technological solutions. Despite increased pressure by the continually increasing human population, nature is still currently able to provide over 150% of the food needed to feed all of humanity.
Reining in corporate greed shown by rushing products to market to recoup the investment by stockholders involves legislative efforts – and much debate is currently going on. In my opinion, reducing starvation due to poverty could be best improved by enhancing infrastructure to improve the efficiency of transportation food to geographical regions whose people are currently in great need of edible food. That work will involve the complex challenge of straightening out politics and reducing the ability of dictators to starve their fellow humans.
GMO research will undoubtedly continue, but it will likely have more regulations and better testing protocols to assess safety than previously required. For now, most Americans will continue to eat GMOs and foods made with GMOs without knowing it. GMO foods and beverages will hopefully be labeled with their specific genetic modification in the future, so that consumers can more easily judge the potential risks and make the best choice of food and beverages for themselves.