It’s been a whole week. Are you still keeping your New Year’s resolutions?
Maybe you’ve heard the joke: A New Year’s resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other.
The most common New Year’s resolution probably involves health–pledges to eat less, diet more, start jogging, avoid extra-large hot fudge sundaes, and take better care of our bodies in general.
Unfortunately, these resolutions are probably the most commonly broken as well.
Biotechnology won’t ever stop us from reneging on all the promises that we make to ourselves. Temptation is a human weakness that will always be with us. Yet biotechnology may make it a little easier to stick to some of our resolutions, especially if they involve good health.
Last July, the Food and Drug Administration issued a new regulation that requires food products to list trans fats separately on their nutrition labels. Scheduled to go into effect on New Year’s Day in 2006, this rule has food companies scrambling to come up with ways to reduce trans fats.
This raises an obvious question: What the heck are trans fats? Simply put, trans fats are the byproducts of hydrogenation, a process that involves the bubbling of hydrogen into hot vegetable oil. This technique extends the shelf life of certain oils commonly found in margarine, peanut butter, and many other foods. That’s the good news. The bad news is that trans fats can raise levels of LDL cholesterol, which is the nasty kind of cholesterol that clogs arteries.
“It is the No. 1 thing on the minds of food manufacturers: How can they get a trans-fat-free oil they can put in fryers and cakes and cookies?” says Kim Severson, author of a book called The Trans Fat Solution.
It won’t be long before the shelves on our grocery stores are full of products that call themselves “trans-fat-free.”
At least that’s the goal. The problem for food makers is getting there. “Our companies are looking for ways to reduce the trans fats in products right now,” says Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
Biotechnology eventually will supply much of the answer. Research is underway to create soybeans with reduced polyunsaturated fat. These should be on the market within three or four years. Three or four years later, there may also be soybeans that are almost totally free of unhealthy fats. At that point, oils could be labeled “free of saturated fat and trans fat.”
I’ve had heart bypass surgery, so the importance of this application really hits home for me. Yet it shouldn’t take much to convince folks that this is fantastic for everyone. Most of us know that we could stand to eat at least a little better than we do currently. Wouldn’t it be great if biotechnology allowed us to eat healthier without having to change the fundamentals of our diets?
It’s been said that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but it seems to me that this comes pretty darn close.
And herein lies the key to the widespread acceptance of biotechnology. A lot of consumers are worried that the genetic enhancement of crops creates health risks. This is of course not true–there isn’t a shred of scientific evidence even hinting at such a thing. Yet the concerns persist, and people worry needlessly.
That’s because the benefits of biotech foods have been abstract for most people. They’re all about crop yields, weed-free fields and environmental protection – wonderful things, to be sure, but far from the minds of people thinking about what to buy at the grocery store.
When people are given a new choice, they often ask a simple question: “What’s in it for me?” With these new advances in biotechnology, they might be better off asking a slightly different version of the same thing: “What’s not in it for me?” And the answer will be: trans fats and all the lousy stuff that comes with them.
Now that sounds like a good healthy New Year’s resolution: Eat more genetically enhanced food.
Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) is a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.