We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

The Risks of Biotechnology in the Food Industry

Although the presence of biotechnology has undoubtedly advanced society’s agricultural and food production, they jeopardize consumer safety by allowing the inclusion of harmful ingredients.
The main ingredient of Just Egg is mung bean, but the vegan alternative still manages to mimic the look, taste, and texture of real eggs. (Photo Credit: Mx. Granger, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the last few decades, the world has witnessed immense growth in the presence of technology in both the food and agriculture industries. With inventions from the impossible burger, a burger made of plants that imitates ground beef, to Just Egg, engineering food marvels took social media feeds and news stories by storm in the late 2010’s. But more recently, synthetic and artificial foods and ingredients have been placed in the spotlight for their harmful effects on consumers’ health.

Of course certain ingredients have been demonized by health and wellness blogs on the internet, including but not limited to high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and gluten, but what about the ingredients beyond those? A closer inspection of your daily meals will uncover a lot more hidden toxins than you’d expect. 

Ever since technological innovations gained a presence in the food manufacturing industry in the past decades, it has become easier and easier for food manufacturers to completely revolutionize our diets. Some of these changes have undoubtedly improved the production and quality of the foods we eat such as grains, canned foods, and produce. The advanced technology and machinery that regulate the agricultural industry have allowed for increased yield, reduced labor costs, and more environmentally friendly practices.

Other changes, however, have been viewed as controversial due to their potential health ramifications on their consumers. The most well known being genetic modification, a technique that involves transferring DNA in between different organisms to alter their characteristics. Genetically modified organisms were first invented in the late 1900s, and were approved by the FDA to be used for insulin, a treatment for diabetes. 

The idea of manipulating the characteristics of organisms stretches back long before the 1900’s, however, as ever since the beginning of agriculture, farmers have used selective breeding to intentionally breed plants and animals with favorable traits to boost agricultural yields and control the characteristics of their domesticated animals’ offspring.

This concept forms the basis for the rise of genetic modification in the agriculture industry. The Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, who performed heredity experiments with pea plants in the 19th century, discovered the fundamental laws of inheritance. Over a century later, the first genetically modified tomato, one that has a longer shelf life than its natural counterpart, was approved by the FDA for human consumption. While the FDA claimed that there was no indication of health risks that came with the modified tomato and therefore no special labeling was necessary, consumers argued that they had a right to know exactly what they are eating. It was eventually withdrawn from the market due to low profits and high production costs.

Impossible Food’s signature product, the impossible burger, was launched in 2016 and by the end of 2018, 5,000 restaurants in the United States had the impossible burger on their menu. (Photo Credit: Missvain, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Today, however, genetically modified food has become much more prevalent in our grocery stores, with nearly 70 percent of processed foods at U.S. grocery stores containing at least one genetically engineered ingredient. A biotechnological breakthrough that allowed for this rise in GMOs is CRISPR.

CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat Sequences, were first observed in the E. coli genome in 1987. It was revealed that bacteria use CRISPR systems as a defense against viral infections, allowing them to recognize and destroy the virus when exposed to it a second time. Initially, scientists harnessed the power of CRISPR to target and cut DNA at specific regions. In the agricultural field, CRISPR technology is now used to control livestock breeding. For instance, CRISPR has been utilized in the past to remove horns from cattle, make fish more resistant to infections, and produce more male cattle.

Another way technology has found its way into the meat industry is through the process of cultured meat. The production of cultured meat involves retrieving stem cells from an animal biopsy, and allowing those cells to feed on a mixture of nutrients and growth factor while they multiply rapidly in a stainless steel tank. “The process of making cultivated meat is similar to brewing beer, but instead of growing yeast or microbes, we grow animal cells,” said Uma Valeti, founder and CEO of Upside Foods, a cultured meat based in Berkeley, California.

The process of raising livestock for human consumption contributes to nearly 15% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Consumption of conventional meat is tied to higher risk of heart disease and diabetes. Culturing meat allows us to have more control over aspects of the food we eat, such as its fat content. It also prevents the transmission of infectious diseases that spread from animals to people. However, this process of creating cultured meat risks the exposure to biological contaminants found in a laboratory, so the method is not completely flawless.

Finally, one of the most common applications of technology in our food is artificial and synthetic ingredients, one of the most prevalent ones amongst high schoolers being caffeine. Caffeine was discovered in 1819 by Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge and was commonly extracted from tea leaves or coffee beans. When caffeine is naturally extracted, it offers numerous health benefits, including a boosted metabolism, improved mood, and reduced risks for cancer and heart disease. During World War II, caffeine anhydrous, or synthetic caffeine, was developed in Nazi Germany in order to maintain caffeine supplies. Today, synthetic caffeine is mostly produced in China.

The manufacturing of artificial caffeine allows companies such as Red Bull, Monster, and Celsius to pack their products with up to 300 milligrams of caffeine per can. These high levels of artificial caffeine give way to side effects such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, insomnia, headaches, and anxiety.

In the United States, synthetic caffeine can be found in anything from chewing gum to soda. In contrast, Japan completely outlaws the use of synthetic caffeine as an additive, opting for the natural extraction of caffeine from tea leaves and coffee beans.

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, is another synthetic ingredient that has recently come under fire for being potentially carcinogenic, capable of causing cancer. In 1965, aspartame was discovered by James M. Schlatter. Although originally created with the purpose of testing a possible anti-ulcer drug, it was later used in beverages, baked goods, and confections, due to its sweet taste. In fact, aspartame is about 180 to 200 times sweeter than table sugar. On top of that, it is low-calorie and does not raise blood glucose levels, which makes it a popular choice for diet soda production.

Although aspartame has been FDA-approved since 1974, public opinion about the artificial sweetener remains divided. Just last year, an agency of the World Health Organization revealed that aspartame could possibly cause cancer and urged consumers to opt for water or other unsweetened drinks instead.

A final example of artificial ingredients in our food are artificial dyes. These dyes are preferred over natural dyes by food manufactures for a number of reasons. Synthetic dyes can be mass-produced at much lower cost compared to gathering and processing the materials used to make natural colorings. To extract a pound of a deep-red dye, called carminic acid, you would have to crush up 70,000 cochineals, small insects. On the other hand, artificial dyes are mass-produced at a fraction of the cost of the materials required to make natural food dyes. Studies have linked the consumption of artificial dyes to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, while the FDA holds that color additives are, for the most part, safe and will not cause adverse effects for most people.

The technological advancement of the food industry is not likely to end any time soon. It is more important than ever that we address important issues such as the transparency and responsibility of food manufacturers and our own responsibility as consumers to monitor what we are eating.

The idea of manipulating the characteristics of organisms stretches back long before the 1900’s, however, as ever since the beginning of agriculture, farmers have used selective breeding to intentionally breed plants and animals with favorable traits to boost agricultural yields and control the characteristics of their domesticated animals’ offspring.

About the Contributor
Grace Mao, Staff Reporter
 Grace Mao is a Managing Editor for 'The Science Survey,' where she edits her peers’ articles across various sections before they are published online. She enjoys journalistic writing because it is a way to bring certain topics from both history and the present to light. Her favorite aspect of writing journalistic articles is being able to interview her classmates and learn about their opinions on the topic she is writing about. Her favorite aspect of taking photographs is their ability to capture emotions, feelings, and memories, while also telling a story. Outside of school, Grace enjoys drawing, listening to music, and spending time with friends. She plans to pursue journalism in the future, specifically scientific journalism. Grace also plans to continue biology research and study biomedical sciences in college and use journalism to share the research she conducts with the public.