How Safe Is Our New Food Technology?
Approximately 70 percent of the processed foods on American supermarket shelves—from snack items and baked goods to tomato sauce, breakfast cereals, and beyond—contain ingredients from genetically modified (GM) soy, corn, canola, or cottonseed. In addition, some of the crookneck squash, zucchini, and Hawaiian papaya sold in the U.S. are genetically engineered. GM crops in the U.S. are designed to be bug-, herbicide-, and disease-resistant. "These crops are not required to go through a mandatory safety assessment before going on the market," Hansen says. "There are still serious questions about health consequences that can arise when you genetically engineer an organism, then eat it."
In Europe, if a genetically modified ingredient makes up .9 percent or more of a food, the packaging must carry a GM label. In the U.S., GM foods are not labeled.
Should you care? There isn't enough research to say for sure. One early example of what can go wrong occurred in the mid-1990s, when researchers inserted what turned out to be a highly allergenic protein from Brazil nuts into soybeans. That bean was scrapped, and since then food scientists have been more careful. Food allergy expert Steve L. Taylor, PhD, director of the Food Allergy Research Resource Program at the University of Nebraska, says there's little evidence of increased allergy risk from GM foods.
Bottom line: You can hedge your bets by choosing certified-organic baked goods and processed foods.
Most of the EU permits irradiation only for dried herbs, spices, and vegetable-based seasonings; since 1963 the FDA has approved irradiation to zap dangerous organisms in chicken, eggs, beef, pork, lamb, flour, herbs, spices, fruit, and vegetables.
Critics warn that the process—which uses X-rays, gamma rays, or electron beams—reduces nutrient levels in foods, may increase levels of possible carcinogens, creates off tastes, and covers up sloppy farming and distribution practices that contaminate food. Proponents say these claims are unfounded. "Food irradiation should never be used to 'clean up' dirty food products," says Suresh D. Pillai, PhD, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Food Research at Texas A&M University. "But there are about 5,000 deaths annually in the U.S. due to food-borne pathogens. Irradiation can eliminate many of those."
Should you care? At a time when food-borne pathogens are on the rise, choosing irradiated items at the supermarket could help you sidestep trouble, Pillai says.
Bottom line: Irradiated foods (except herbs and spices) carry this symbol . Considering the known risks and benefits, that should make you feel reassured.
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