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Fighting Diseases With Bioengineered Foods?

February 05, 2001|Phil Lempert

Susan Harlander sees a future in which we will choose what to eat based on our own genetic makeup. With the benefit of genetic testing, we would know whether we carried genes that predisposed us to illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's and diabetes. We'd then eat foods--many of them the products of genetic engineering--that would be designed to help prevent or cure those diseases.

That future may not be that far off, says Harlander, a consultant in New Brighton, Minn. Already, many foods produced with the help of genetic engineering are on supermarket shelves. Today, more than 55% of all soybeans and nearly half of all corn produced in the United States is genetically modified for insect resistance, lower herbicide use or greater yield. And gene-splicing techniques have been used to improve a variety of foods, such as beer and tomatoes.

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Most of the controversy surrounding bioengineered crops and food has focused on such issues as labeling and the risk of potential environmental and health problems.

Biotechnology is the process in which a specific gene--or blueprint of a trait--is isolated and removed from one organism, then relocated into the DNA of another organism to replicate that trait. Last May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued new rules that require a mandatory review of all foods that are produced through genetic engineering.

While the debate over bioengineered foods continues, the food industry is working to stock supermarkets with these genetically engineered foods that will claim to enrich, maintain and prolong your life.

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Here's a look at some of the new bioengineered foods that will be arriving in the supermarkets in the next two to three years:

Golden rice is a genetically modified rice with increased levels of beta-carotene and other carotenoids, which has been created to help fight vitamin A deficiency, a leading cause of blindness.

Scientists at Alabama A&M University at Normal, Ala., are working to remove the protein that is the source of peanut allergies.

Being able to alter the saturation levels of oil means healthier peanut, canola, soybean and sunflower oils; and according to Harlander, such products are awaiting approval by the FDA. New soybean oils, for example, have been developed that are more than 80% monounsaturated and contain 33% less saturated fat than olive oil. Such oils will be helpful to people seeking to reduce their cholesterol levels.

Lycopene, found mostly in tomatoes, is highly regarded as one of the most effective antioxidants. Harvard researchers discovered in 1995 that lycopene lowered the risk of prostate cancer. Now, researchers at the University of London/Royal Holloway Hospital have created tomatoes that contain three times the amount of this cancer-fighting, heart-protecting nutrient.

And researchers have isolated the specific DNA trait that produces caffeine in young tea leaves, which will allow them to develop plants that are naturally deficient in caffeine. The plants would retain the same flavor and aroma as their caffeine counterparts.

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Phil Lempert hosts a national syndicated radio show and is the food correspondent for NBC's "Today" show. He can be reached at PLempert@aol.com.

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