08 February 2011

5 pervasive frankenfoods that you’ve already eaten today

We’re probably all familiar with Mary Shelley’s 1818 horror story about a towering, humanoid creature cobbled together and bestowed with life by seemingly well-intentioned scientist, Victor Frankenstein. Due to the unconventional physical appearance of his ‘monster’ (courtesy of assorted body parts plucked from local mortuaries), the scientist is overcome with a ‘breathless horror and disgust’ at his creation, ultimately abandoning it. The monster’s rejection then snowballs into a mounting vengeance toward his creator that escalates when his unfortunate physical appearance continually evokes terror in those he simply wants to befriend.

It’s not hard to feel sympathetic toward the plight of Frankenstein’s monster. As with any living creature, we all instinctually just want to be happy – a challenging goal for some since our society continues to judge books by their covers rather than look beyond superficial packaging. On the other hand, scientists constantly strive to make our lives better and more convenient by perpetually improving on that which Mother Nature gives us. They’re not maniacally laughing behind closed doors while plotting our eminent downfall…at least I don’t think they are.

Unlike Shelley’s misunderstood monster underdog however, the ‘frankenfood’ moniker given to today’s laboratory-tweaked crops seems rightfully earned since it goes straight to the core of their sci-fi origins. All glossy and uniformly supermodely on the outside, we may be fooled by the outward appearance of the seemingly normal GM food that forms the foundation of our dinner table, but it conceals a monstrous secret that many of us are completely clueless about.

Genetic engineering is the process by which scientists insert favorable genes from one species into another, endowing foods with the ability to repel insects, possess a higher nutrient value, grow larger at a faster rate, etc. Seems practical and even helpful for the advancement of society, but is it really necessary? Some say yes, while others say ‘hellllll no’. What about when we custom tailor foods in ways that seem far less essential, and maybe even a little superficial?

One part garden variety tomato and one part arctic flounder, Calgene’s Flavr Savr was the 1990’s equivalent of a cold-resistant tomato with a scientifically enhanced shelf life. Needless to say, people were totally uncool about that one in light of the fish gene factor. Okanagan’s new genetically modified apple -- absent of all animal-derived traits -- doesn’t oxidize when it’s cut into pieces. I suppose that's minorly nifty, but again, how does this qualify as a huge improvement on Mother Nature when you can just eat your apple promptly or dip it in citrus juice to eliminate the typical browning effect?

Critics continue to be up in arms about biotechnology because – while it inarguably enables farmers to boost crop yields, thus accommodating our ever-burgeoning global population in a cost efficient manner – the drawbacks include questionable environmental and human health concerns. Unlike trials that are regularly conducted on new pharmaceutical drugs, no official long-term tests have been launched to determine the legitimate safety of GM foods. Well, maybe I should rephrase that. Since the mid 1990s, we’ve actually all been unwitting participants in an unofficial nationwide ‘let’s wait-and-see’ test, and fortunately for us, officials have noted no notable consequences yet. Should we be pissed off? It depends on your stance.

Organic consumers might take comfort in the notion that they are spared from this questionable technology, however that would be exceedingly naïve. Granted, organically grown food is supposed to be cultivated without the use of GM seeds or conventional pesticides, but organic crops are still contaminated on a regular basis by neighboring farms that use genetically modified materials. Thus far, officials haven’t yet figured out how to prevent wind from blowing GM pollen or seeds into once pristine fields.

Just how many genetically modified foods have become the mainstays of your daily diet? Given the 740 million acres planted in North America, Brazil and Argentina, the figure is far higher than any of us would like to admit. 2009 statistics reveal that in America alone, 95% of all sugar beets were genetically modified, followed by 91% of all soybeans, 88% of all cotton and 85% of all corn and canola crops.

Sure, you wear it, but you also eat it – the oil, that is – in myriad edible products such as cereal, salad dressing, Crisco shortening, margarine, snack foods, potato chips, baked goods, etc. Interestingly, the fluffy stuff naturally contains very high levels of gossypol (a known toxin) in its seeds, but due to the modern marvels of science, comprehensive processing renders the resulting oil safe for human consumption. On the horizon: a GM version of gossypol-free cotton. Oh goody!

Brassica napus var oleifera is a weed-like plant with bright yellow flowers that yields oodles of tiny oil-laden seeds that are crushed to produce canola oil. The low saturated fat product can be found in such common consumer goods as fried potatoes, baked goods and margarine, although if you’ve just breathed a sigh of relief thinking that you’re ‘safe’ from its GM clutches, it’s quite likely that you’re still ingesting canola if you’re a fan of conventionally-produced lipsticks.

Despite failing to complete an Environmental Impact Statement, the USDA has inexplicably rolled out the red carpet for genetically modified sugar beets that are automatically resistant to multiple applications of America’s most treasured weed killer, Roundup. The biggest concern is that this laboratory-concocted creation could potentially “cross-pollinate with non-genetically engineered sugar beets and related Swiss chard and table beets”, triggering environmental issues such as the advent of super-weeds, a dramatic increase in the application of glyphosate-laden herbicides (which are linked to cancer) and a reduction in natural pollinators. Beets? Who cares…I never eat ‘em. Oh yes you do, especially if you consume breakfast cereal, candy, molasses-derived vinegar or antibiotics.

This incredibly multipurpose grain, integral to countless cultures, has applications as diverse as food and biofuel to eco-friendly plastics and adhesives, but it’s also migrated into some surprising productslike toothpaste, aspirin, clothing that is ‘starched’ and even the backs of postage stamps! Enjoying hefty government subsidies, today’s GM corn has been altered at the genetic level (like the rest of the food staples included in this list) to produce an insecticide that kills pests that dare to munch.


Who could have anticipated that the launch of GM soy in 1996 would lay the groundwork for today’s full-throttle frankenfood crops, but that has most definitely been the case with the high-protein legume which is as integral to the production of vegetarian-friendly foods as it is to oil, baby formula, biodiesel, soap, crayons and vodka. Keep an eye out for chemical company Dupont’s new GM ‘Plenish’ soybeans (lower in saturated fat and higher in monounsaturated fatty acids) – they’ve just been given the green light by the US Department of Agriculture.

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/scrc