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Ep. 50 – Bioengineered Foods

What is a bioengineered food? If you don't know, Dr. Chet Zelasko will explain on this addition of Straight Talk on Health

Welcome to Straight Talk on Health. I’m your host Dr. Chet Zelasko. Straight Talk on Health is recorded in conjunction with WGVU in Grand Rapids MI. I examine the world of health. Whether it’s research that makes the news, another miracle diet, or a new food fad, I look at the science behind them, and let you know whether it’s real or not. You can check out other things that I do on my website Drchet.com and sign up for my free emails.

In the last podcast on the USDA DGA, I reviewed the guidelines to establish that the government encourages us to eat nutrient dense, whole, and minimally processed foods. As I suggested in that podcast, what I was really seeking to do was to find where all the non-GMO stickers on product packaging went. Even more important, I wanted to find out what bioengineered food is. I've been in this business a long time so I was pretty sure that bioengineered food was a replacement for GMO identification. The problem was that I didn't see the phrase “bioengineered food” on many labels. I’d like to know so that's what this podcast is all about: identifying the changes in food labels as it relates to genetically modified foods.

As we get into how the Agricultural Marketing Service along with several other departments of the USDA determined new rules for the definition and especially the labeling of genetically modified foods, it may come across as being a little suspicious. We'll get to more of the governmental involvement and when it occurred a little later but let's start with some definitions of exactly what the heck we're talking about when it comes to bioengineered foods.

What exactly is a bioengineered food? What are not bioengineered foods?

A bioengineered food contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro rDNA techniques and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature. In this case, the DNA is modified in a laboratory (in a test tube or petri dish) to get desirable traits for better crop yields or resistance to disease or some such thing like that. So digging into the definition, a bioengineered food would have to contain some form of genetic material from the modified gene. But here is where it gets interesting with new definitions.

What is not a bioengineered food? This gets a little complicated but in effect, it's foods in which the modified genetic material is not detectable. In the past, when people criticized GMO foods or the new BEF nomenclature, when you're looking at things like oils, like soybean oil or canola oil which are derived from plants that have been genetically altered, I never saw how the DNA would be in the oil in levels that could be detected simply because of the processing of the oil itself. But there are newer techniques for mutating food genes like CRISPR - Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and others. They can’t be tested because there are no tests to do so. Therefore, those foods wouldn’t require a BE label. It seems more than a little suspicious that that would be targeted by that determination. But wait there's more.

Listen to this one. Foods subject to certain factors and conditions are not bioengineered foods (i.e. incidental additives). What is an incidental additive? It strikes me that it would have to be intentionally placed within the food. Of course we're talking about processed foods, not a soybean or beet itself. Most of the additives are derived from BE foods.

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard was introduced into congress in 2016 and took full effect in 2022. Who is covered by the Standard, taken directly from the USDA website:

Food Manufacturers, Importers, and Retailers who package and label food for retail sale or sell bulk food items. The exceptions are: Restaurants and similar retail food establishments, and very small food manufacturers (<$2,500,000 annual receipts).

What foods require disclosure? Foods that are subject to the labeling requirements under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). The FDCA defines ‘‘food’’ as ‘‘. . . (1) articles used for food or drink for man or other animals, (2) chewing gum, and (3) articles used for components of any such article.’ BUT, although pet food and animal feed are ‘‘food’’ under the FDCA, such foods for animals are not covered by this regulation. That means that BE corn and soybeans can be fed to animals and we would not know--although it hasn’t been disclosed in the past either. Still, no farmers are compelled to reveal it.

What foods other that FDCA foods are subject to the labeling requirements under the Federal Meat, Poultry Products or the Egg Products Inspection Acts? Only those whose predominant ingredient would independently be subject to labeling under the FDCA, or the predominant ingredient is broth, stock, water or similar solution and the second most predominant ingredient would independently be subject to labeling under the FDCA. The animals could be exclusively fed BE foods and it would not have to be disclosed.

Remember, this whole examination began with not seeing that familiar non-GMO insignia on food labels any more. How should the new regulations disclose the BE foods to the public? One of these four options for making disclosure ways:

On-package text, e.g. “Bioengineered Food,” or “Contains a Bioengineered Food Ingredient.”

USDA approved symbol - being radio, I can’t show it to you but it is a clear recognizable symbol.

Electronic or digital disclosure – must include instructions to “Scan here for more food information” or similar language, and include a phone number.

Text message disclosure – “Text [command word] to [number] for bioengineered food information.

I did a quick look in my cupboard and fridge. I checked a package of turkey jerky. I had to go to the website and ask a question about BE foods. I haven’t gotten the answer yet. My grandson Riley likes caramel syrup in his milk. I scanned the QRS code and still didn’t get a decent answer. It was a general position paper on the company’s dedication to provide safe products to consumers. Near the end of this three page paper, they listed about 7 products of the 100s they offer that were BE free. Not surprising as it contained HFCS and almost all corn used for that purpose is BE. Another company that sells a red licorice had a “Contains BE components” right on the package, again HFCS. The final product I scanned was cheese puffs. The label disclosed that BE components were used in the manufacture of the food. I’m going to continue to check results for other products, especially calling an 800 number to see what response I get.

Lest you think I only have UPF in my house, I have had more than usual but that’s something I’m going to talk about in a future Straight Talk on Health.

What conclusions can we draw--and I really just scratched the surface of the new BE disclosure regulations? I think it’s obvious that companies would prefer not making it easy to disclose whether they have BE, formerly known as GMO, components in their food. But doesn’t bother me the most. It’s trying not to disclose anything at all about the source of their foods and components. If you have nothing to hide, why hide it at all? I guess I’m just not a food marketer at heart. Thanks for listening but we’re all out of time. This is Dr. Chet Zelasko saying health is a choice. Choose wisely today and every day.





Dr. Chet Zelasko is a scientist, speaker, and author. Dr. Chet has a Ph.D. and MA in Exercise Physiology and Health Education from Michigan State University and a BS in Physical Education from Canisius College. He’s certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a Health and Fitness Specialist, belongs to the American Society of Nutrition, and has conducted research and been published in peer-reviewed journals. You can find him online at drchet.com.
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