ITACHA, N.Y.—The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) are as safe as conventional food, yet critics of GMOs question their safety and impact on the environment.
In fact, consumer awareness about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) continues to grow as advocates rally for the removal of GMO ingredients from food and beverage products, or at the very least, GMO labeling mandates. (Check out FPD’s News Desk “GMO Debate Sparks Consumer Concern"). Two states, Connecticut and Maine, have enacted GMO laws, although they don’t take effect unless other states pass GMO labeling legislation. And more than 20 other states are considering similar law. And in January, more than 200 businesses and organizations sent a letter to President Obama urging him to require food companies to disclose GMOs on labels.
So it begs the question: Does genetic manipulation causes unintended changes in food quality and composition? Are genetically modified (GM) foods less nutritious than their non-GM counterparts, or different in unknown ways? Despite extensive cultivation and testing of GM foods, those questions still linger in the minds of many consumers.
A new study published in the journal The Plant Genome demonstrates a potentially more powerful approach to answering those questions.
Scientists at Cornell University extracted roughly 1,000 biochemicals, or “metabolites," from tomatoes that had been genetically engineered to delay fruit ripening—a common technique to help keep fruits fresher longer. The researchers then compared the metabolic profile from the GM fruit to the profile of its non-GM variety.
Extracting and analyzing hundreds metabolites at once gave researchers a snapshot of the fruit’s physiology, which can be compared against others. When the scientists compared the biochemicals of the GM tomato and a wide assortment other non-GM tomatoes, including modern and heirloom varieties, they found no significant differences overall. Thus, although the GM tomato was distinct from its parent, its metabolic profile still fell within the “normal" range of biochemical diversity exhibited by the larger group of varieties. However, the biochemicals related to fruit ripening did show a significant difference, which was no surprise because that was the intent of the genetic modification.
The finding suggests little or no accidental biochemical change due to genetic modification in this case, as well as a “useful way to address consumer concerns about unintended effects" in general, said lead researcher Owen Hoekenga, a Cornell adjunct assistant professor.
Hoekenga noted the FDA already requires developers of GM crops to compare a handful of key nutritional compounds in GM varieties relative to their non-GM parents. The process is designed to catch instances where genetic manipulation may have affected nutritional quality, for example. Moreover, comparing a GM variety to diverse cultivars can help scientists and consumers put into context any biochemical changes that are observed.
“We accept that there isn't just one kind of tomato at the farmer's market. We look for diverse food experiences," he said. “So we think that establishing the range of acceptable metabolic variability [in food] can be useful for examining GM varieties."
Making statistical comparisons of metabolic fingerprints is no easy task, and the researchers adapted a style of statistics used in other research. However, the techniques don’t apply only to tomato.
“The method can be applied to any plant or crop," Hoekenga said “We've made something fundamentally useful that anyone can use and improve on."
Interestingly, FDA recently declined requests by federal judges to determine whether food may be labeled “Natural," “All Natural" or “100% Natural" if it contains bioengineered ingredients. Check out the “FDA ‘All Natural’ GMO Lawsuits" slide show to learn more.