I’m no health-food nut. In fact, I often just shake my head in sympathy when I think of those poor things when they get sick, worrying and wondering why they can’t point to a specific food to blame.
I will admit, I could eat better than I do. The New Year, of course, provides a good occasion for resolving to cut down on fats and sugars–or on whatever else ails you.
Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if food companies made it easier for us to feed ourselves in healthy ways? As it happens, they’re hard at work on this situation. Contrary to controversial claims that they’re hungry to promote the “supersizing” of America, many companies are discovering that there’s a strong demand for nutritional foods. Kellogg recently announced that it will become the first big food company to use a new type of soybean oil that reduces trans fats. Others are adding special ingredients to their traditional fare.
A recent New York Times story summarized the situation: “With health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, and digestive disorders all on the rise, a growing number of food marketers are selling what the food industry calls functional foods, which promise a host of health benefits, from cholesterol reduction to immunity improvements to easing of intestinal problems.” A new version of Tropicana orange juice, for instance, will contain three grams of fiber per serving, and it will join a group of brands that already boast extra vitamins and minerals.
With nearly half of all Americans suffering from some chronic health condition, companies that rise to the challenge of confronting this problem may find themselves richly rewarded. Those that embrace biotechnology may enjoy the richest rewards of all. Genetically enhanced crops already have revolutionized farming; they are now beginning to transform the way we eat.
Consider the case of peanuts. When was the last time you got to eat a bag of them on an airplane? Chances are, it’s been quite a while–because many airlines have quit serving them out of a concern for the people with peanut allergies. (I occasionally bring my own along because I like peanuts.)
Through biotechnology, however, scientists are looking for solutions. By removing the proteins that trigger allergies, or perhaps modifying them in ways that cause them to lose their allergenic punch, they are on the way to making peanuts safe for everyone.
Researchers may also defeat milk allergies. They’ve found that adding a protein called Thioredoxin H to milk reduced its allergenic properties by a factor of 300. Through biotechnology, it may be possible to fortify other foods, such as wheat, with enough Thioredoxin H to immunize people from milk allergies.
Speaking of milk, scientists in New Zealand are studying ways to enhance cows so that they produce milk that helps people defend against diseases. If they succeed, it will be possible on some future New Year’s Eve to drink to your health–literally.
Ultimately, some specialty crops will provide vaccines directly. In Japan, scientists have created a variety of rice that helps people fight seasonal allergies. So in the years ahead, when hay fever strikes, sufferers might skip running out to the store to buy boxes of Claritin and consider turning to their rice cookers instead.
It will take years before any of these items are mass-produced–food-safety regulations will guarantee that these biotech products undergo exhaustive testing before they show up on grocery-store shelves. Someday, however, they’re going to reach the market and we’re all going to be glad they did. One of the first to make it may be a type of potato that carries a hepatitis B vaccine. An early round of experiments on human volunteers has shown encouraging results.
Unfortunately, there is still too much fear in the air. Although the voters in California’s Sonoma County wisely rejected a ban on biotech crops in November, other voters haven’t demonstrated the same fortitude. Many of them live in Europe. Swiss voters, for example, recently approved a five-year ban on the farming of genetically modified crops.
They may think that they’re acting out of a concern for health, but I think they’re not health nut–they’re just plain nuts.
Dean Kleckner is an Iowa farmer and past president of the American Farm Bureau. He chairs Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) a national non-profit based in Des Moines, IA, formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.