C is for Cookie: Designer Foods Are All Style No Substance

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Designer Foods Are All Style No Substance

Keep your eyes on the news if you're interested in food innovation, because we're going to see a steady increase in the number of stories involving "designer foods". Scientists are working with farmers and food manufacturers to design - and patent - foods and animals, purportedly for the benefit of consumers. I am very apprehensive of the "designer food" claims and more than a bit concerned about how these foods will truly affect our health.

I consider myself to be an open-minded person who appreciates that science has made leaps and bounds in helping us understand the world around us. As I often say, I'm alive today thanks to modern science, which helped me survive a childhood troubled by chronic asthma. Most of the medicine we see on pharmacy shelves has undergone a lot of testing and those of us who are responsible take medication when we are ill or have an acute problem that requires a strong efficacious solution.

But now, scientists are itching to get into the kitchen. They're taking a number of isolated chemicals and food constituents that are known to have health benefits and are inserting them into foods, theorizing that eating these foods will bring similar benefits. I am dubious for a few reasons. Firstly, we are only now starting to understand the complexity of food constituents and their ability to protect our health. Hundreds of years ago, doctors found that people who ate citrus fruits were protected from certain illnesses and through study and research they discovered the health benefits of Vitamin C which was in fact ascorbic acid isolated from citrus fruits. With doctors touting the benefits of this new vitamin, soon many companies churned out laboratory-produced "vitamin C" pills and we swallowed or chewed them to ward off colds. In recent years, scientists have begun to understand that in fact there are a number of compounds that work together in the fruit and it's not just the ascorbic acid. In citrus fruits, one of these helper compounds is bioflavonoids, which aid the absorption of vitamin C and prevent its being oxidized. Bioflavonoids are one type of antioxidant. Lo and behold, antioxidants became the new buzzword and we now have a flurry of new product at the grocery store, with each manufacturer claiming that its food contains the most antioxidants.

Here's a crazy idea.....how about eating a grapefuit when you feel sick instead of taking an ester-c capsule buffered with extra bioflavonoids?

Secondly, I think that isolating one compound from a food may be missing the boat when it comes to trying to understand what really makes a food "healthy" or protective. Oranges are a highly-effective source and delivery system of vitamin C for humans, because we were designed to eat oranges. And while interferon is an important chemical for fighting cancer, it's normally released into our bloodstream as part of the natural immune response. So how do we know that interferon will be accepted by our bodies' immune system when we fry it up in an omelette?

It's heartening to see that many new studies are finding whole foods and vegetables - like the cruciferous family - to be cancer-protective. But these are offset by the amount of studies funded by drug and food manufacturers who are essentially looking for an ingredient to add to their product so they can claim it is "healthy" and then reap the financial benefits. Take, for example, the new genetically-modified hens that lay eggs which are filled with human interferon, a known cancer-fighting protein that our bodies produce naturally. Scientists genetically modified the hens (injected hen embryos with human DNA) and bred them with other hens, then modified and bred them again until their eggs contained an adequate amount of the desired proteins. Now we can have a daily dose of interferon with our morning eggs.

A serious critique of genetic modification is that we don't know what could happen if humans were to eat eggs from genetically modified chickens over the course of a human lifetime. That's because it's never been done before. It may be just the same as eating a conventional egg. But it may be drastically different. Are these laboratory recipes worth the risk?

I also find it interesting that we are bringing in science to put "health" back into eggs since we've managed to breed all the goodness out of the modern egg. Your regular grocery store egg is a product of the conventional chicken farming industry which begins with sick chickens imprisoned in small cages eating processed feed and laying eggs non-stop until they become too sick at the ripe old age of 18 months. Conventional eggs are much less healthy than they were 100 years ago and we have the science of modernisation to thank for that. Will science help us put our healthy egg back together again? I'd rather eat an egg that's naturally filled with Omega 3s and healthy proteins because the chicken that laid it walked around during the day and pecked and scratched its dinner from an unpolluted country field.

A cynical view might say that isolating the good components of food is all about economics. By identifying "healthy" compounds and adding them to a processed food you end up with a great marketing pitch and it allows a company to keep mass-producing their cheap products to maintain profits. Take the case of Wonder Bread Plus which has somehow been allowed to call itself whole grain bread due to clever wording but is still the same old white bread that has chemical vitamins added to it so it doesn't make people sick when they eat it.

Adding a healthy compound to an unhealthy food doesn't make good sense nutritionally, and you can only hide the truth from the public for so long. More and more we are learning that it's the combination of factors in foods that make them healthy: juice, pulp, fibre, naturally-occuring oils inside seeds. But food manufacturers aren't interested in packaging ordinary foods that we've all seen before. The best way to corner the market on a food is to make sure you are the only one who can sell it. And the only way to do that is to patent a way of processing a food or to patent the food itself, which is done by genetically modifying it. How can a manufacturer be competitive when all eggs look the same? How can a consumer tell the difference? Well if you are the only company to sell eggs with interferon in them, you'll find yourself ahead of the game with that Unique Selling Proposition.

Here's an example of this kind of ingenuity at work. Everybody knows that dogs need to eat healthy to grow up strong, and most dog owners find that Rover likes to munch on a carrot when thrown his way. So here's a company called Pegetables that makes pet treats "made from low-fat natural vegetable ingredients including carrots, celery and corn." They're shaped like vegetables too! I can picture the Marketing folks saying "Now how are we going to compete with fresh vegetables? I know! Let's take bits of fruit and veggies and mix them up with processed wheat gluten, food dyes and chemicals and then mould them into colourful vegetable shapes!"

I strongly support the need for scientific research that helps us extend our lives and protect ourselves from diseases. But must we constantly deconstruct things in order to put them back together in "new and improved" ways? I think that it's possible to pursue medical research and also appreciating natural sources of health, such as fruits and vegetables. And I really applaud when companies go out and use scientific analysis to find evidence of protective compounds in the foods that we eat. But I am wary of science's knee-jerk instinct of isolating those compounds down to the smallest chemical, because that's when a food component starts to become a commodity ready to be patented, processed and mass-produced for mass profits. This kind of thinking strikes another blow to our local farmer who is simply trying to produce healthy food for the people in his community. I'll be putting all my eggs in that basket.

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