Walking down the grocery aisles or looking into your cabinet, you may notice an update on the way that some of the foods are labeled. At the beginning of 2021, the Nutrition Facts Label was updated to reflect changes in how nutrient values are presented or defined. As 2022 is right around the corner, you may be noticing a new term popping up on your food labels – bioengineering.
What exactly does the term mean?
Bioengineering describes a food or a food ingredient that has been genetically modified. This modification is created using laboratory techniques and cannot be created through usual development or found in nature. This new term is used to describe what was more widely known as GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.
Why is there a need for a disclosure on packaging now?
Prior to 2022, it was voluntary for food manufacturers to label foods or food products as bioengineered and therefore, it wasn’t consistent in indicating food products or ingredients. Plant varieties have been genetically modified since mid-1990s and labeling has been requested from several organizations to help give consumers a more informed choice of the products they select from the market. The United States will now join 64 other countries around the world, including all the countries in the European Union, to mandate labeling on food products that contain GMOs.
Is it safe for patients to consume bioengineered food products?
The quick answer is, yes, and patients are most likely already consuming products that are bioengineered. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 80% of foods in supermarkets contain ingredients that come from genetically modified crops. In addition, modified seeds are used to plant over 90% of all corn, cotton, and soy grown in the US. Research indicates consumption of bioengineered foods has no higher risk to human health than eating their non-bioengineered counterparts. Long-term studies have not directly addressed bioengineered food consumption, but time series epidemiological data does not show connections with any disease or chronic conditions to the consumption of these foods.
There are indeed some benefits to the consumption of bioengineered food products. Bioengineering has made crops more insect resistant, therefore, have reduced insecticide poisonings or exposure to toxins that may contribute to adverse health outcomes. There is an additional benefit to farmers and consumers as decreased crop die-off increases farmer’s crop yield, bringing in more revenue for them, and allows the price for consumers to be lower as well.
Some of the drawbacks of bioengineered foods products are that genetically modifying products may increase the allergies to those foods or food ingredients. There also may be increased antibiotic resistance seen in humans, but more research is necessary to confirm if this is related to bioengineering or medical over prescription.
It is important to note that conventional fruits, vegetables, and dairy products have been ‘bio-engineered’ over time to improve quality, safety, shelf life, and make products less suspectable to disease. This in turn can provide a greater benefit of durability or nutritional content to foods. These foods that have been consumed over history and are considered safe have often not undergone the same testing that bioengineered foods have.
Why am I just now seeing it on food labels?
In 2016, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law was passed by Congress to be implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The law has been slowly implemented over the past several years requiring updates to labels on products that we use every day, even if there have been no changes in how the product is usually made or uses for its ingredients. This federal law will take effect on January 1, 2022, making food products that are made with GMOs require disclosure of bioengineered ingredients.
Currently there are 13 bioengineered foods within the United States. This list includes alfalfa, Artic varietal apples, canola, corn, cotton, Begun varietal eggplants, certain papaya, pink flesh pineapples, potato, certain salmon, soybean, summer squash, and sugar beet. As more food manufacturers continue to engineer new foods, this list will continue to be updated on an annual basis. Labeling for bioengineered products will include text, a symbol, a QR Code and a digital link. You may see a label similar to what is featured below:
However, there are some exemptions to the labeling. Food served in a restaurant or similar retail food establishment — for example, cafeteria, food truck, or other establishment selling ready-to-eat food do not have to label the use of bioengineered food ingredients. Neither does food produced by very small food manufacturers or certified organic food.
This disclosure does not apply to feed for animals; therefore, meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs would not be considered bioengineered if the animals consume bioengineered food as part of their diet. Lastly, foods do not require a label if ingredients are found at an “insignificant level”, “cannot be detected”, or “have no technical or functional effect in the food”.
What would be a quick way to explain this to my patients or better understand this myself?
Simply explained, the new National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law will go into effect on January 1st, 2022, and mandates labeling for all food products containing bioengineered food or ingredients, better known as GMOs. Current research shows GMOs are safe to consume, although more long-term research is still in the works. The new labeling is nothing to fear, but instead gives consumers more information on their food purchases.
Statements from USDA and WHO help to ensure the safety of bioengineered products:
“Foods from genetically engineered plants intended to be grown in the United States that have been evaluated by FDA through the consultation process have not gone on the market until the FDA’s questions about the safety of such products have been resolved.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration,
“[Genetically modified] foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown because of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved World Health Organization, 2014.
Download your pdf copy of thisHealthwise Bioengineered Food_FINAL (004) blog article here
- Gay, P. B., & Gillespie, S. H. (2005). Antibiotic resistance markers in genetically modified plants: a risk to human health? The Lancet. Infectious diseases, 5(10), 637–646. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1473-3099(05)70241-3
- Margaret, R. G. (2019). Labeling bioengineered food in the united states: Final regulations from the US department of European Food and Feed Law Review : EFFL, 14(2), 142-151. Retrieved from https://er.lib.k-state.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.er.lib.k- state.edu/scholarly-journals/labeling-bioengineered-food-united-states/docview/2227421250/se- 2?accountid=11789
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Division on Earth and Life Studies; Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources; Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2016 May 17. 5, Human Health Effects of Genetically Engineered Crops. Available from: https://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK424534/
- https://who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/food- technology/Frequently_asked_questions_on_gm_foods.pdf
- https://cancer.org/healthy/eat-healthy-get-active/acs-guidelines-nutrition-physical-activity- cancer-prevention/common-questions.html
By Katie Chapmon, MS, RD
About the Author:
Katie Chapmon, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in Bariatric Nutrition, GI Issues and Hormonal Health and with 10+ years of hands-on clinical experience for leading medical providers. She is the proud recipient of the 2010 Recognized Young Dietitian of the Year Award and 2018 Excellence in Weight Management Practice Award through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
She spent the first decade of her career as the lead dietitian for Kaiser Permanente Southern California. For the past several years, she has been working with industry partners and consumers to improve nutrition education within the field and maintains a virtual private practice. In April 2021, she launched Bariatric Nutrition Pro – to provide healthcare practitioners education to start (or continue!) their bariatric career with the confidence and knowledge to succeed.
She is a past Chair of the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Integrated Health Clinical Issues Committee and Chapter author of the 3rd Edition of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Pocket Guide to Bariatric Surgery. She is a national speaker and enjoys time hiking and cooking in the kitchen. Katie also partners with Nutritional Resources (d/b/a HealthWise) for creation of educational content for weight management professionals.