As of January 2022, new food labeling laws take effect in the U.S. that replace the term “GMO foods” with “bioengineered food” instead.
Believe it or not, GMO/bioengineered ingredients can be found in more than 75% of processed foods made in the U.S. Some consider these modern food production methods to be a necessary part of how we feed the world in 2022 and beyond — in order to keep up with growing demand as the population continues to climb.
However, organizations, including the Center for Food Safety, believe that each day tens of millions of American infants, children and adults eat genetically engineered foods without their knowledge. New regulations and labeling laws hope to help fix this problem.
So are bioengineered foods harmful or potentially healthy? Let’s find out below.
What Is Bioengineered Food?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines bioengineered foods as “those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.”
In other words, bioengineered foods are made with help from science and technology. Their genetic material is altered in a way that changes how the food is grown, usually to help produce more of the food at a cheaper cost.
Are bioengineered foods the same as GMO foods?
Bioengineered, or “BE” for short, is the federal government’s new way tor refer to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
While the two terms can mostly be used interchangeably, the new BE labeling laws leave out many products that are made with GMOs (more on this below).
The main difference between the two is this: BE foods must contain detectable genetic material that shows up on tests, but many products made with new GMO techniques are untestable, so they don’t require BE labeling. Essentially, a food can contain small amounts of GMO ingredients, or be made with help from technology, but it still won’t bear a new BE label.
What foods have bioengineered ingredients?
The USDA has created an official “List of Bioengineered Foods.” The list contains 13 items that are considered bioengineered foods/ingredients:
- Arctic™ Apple
- Some Eggplant
- Ringspot Virus-Resistant Papaya
- Pink Pineapple
- AquAdvantage® Salmon
- Summer Squash
These bioengineered ingredients are used to make many food products found on store shelves — including those that contain cornstarch, corn syrup, canola oil, high fructose corn syrup, granulated sugar and soybean oil.
You’ll find the new BE label on processed foods and other products, such as:
- Sodas/soft drinks
- Baked goods
- Frozen meals
- Non-organic milk made from cows fed genetically modified soy products
- Tofu (GMO soy beans)
- Dressings made with vegetable oils (canola, soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower)
- Sweetened juices
- Canned soups
Additionally, BE crops are used to make animal feed.
Labeling Laws (USDA Update)
Starting Jan. 1, 2022, “The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard” took effect. It requires food manufacturers, importers and retailers in the U.S. to comply with a new national labeling standard for food that’s been genetically modified.
What’s the goal of the new labeling?
The new BE labeling law is regulated on a federal/national level compared to a state level, which was previously the case with GMO food labeling.
The main goals of the new labeling laws are to “give people more information about what they eat and standardize labels across the country,” as one NPR article explained.
The USDA says, “The updated labeling should increase transparency of our nation’s food system, establishing guidelines for regulated entities on when and how to disclose bioengineered ingredients. This ensures clear information and labeling consistency for consumers about the ingredients in their food.”
How will bioengineered foods be labeled?
Going forward, labels on some foods will say “bioengineered” or “derived from bioengineering.” Manufacturers can also use two BE logos approved by the USDA.
Something controversial about the new BE labeling is that certain foods are exempt from needing to be labeled as bioengineered, even though they do contain some genetically modified ingredients. The USDA has stated that “highly refined ingredients (like some sugars and oils)” do not require labels if the level of genetic material is below the USDA’s detectability threshold.
Exemptions to the new BE labeling include: foods that are, or are primarily made with, meat, poultry or egg products (these must be the first ingredients) or foods that are primarily made with water, broth or stock (again, these must be the first ingredient listed).
Very small food manufacturers with sales below $2.5 million per year also don’t need to label their food as bioengineered.
Aside from foods having BE labeling, packages can include QR codes for consumers to scan so they can learn more about the products. There is also a phone number listed on some bioengineered foods for consumers to text if they want to be provided with more information about that food.
Risks and Side Effects
Is it safe to eat bioengineered food? From a health standpoint, bioengineered foods are not very different than GMO foods, which are still controversial.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization, there’s no solid evidence that genetically modified/bioengineered crops are harmful to human health, although not every organization agrees, including the Non-GMO Project and Center for Food Safety.
The Non-GMO Project created the product verification program to help educate consumers about the risks of consuming GMO foods, for both their health and the environment, and to help preserve and build a non-GMO food supply.
For example, the Non-GMO Project explains: “Planting vast areas with just a few crops erodes biodiversity, while the chemical pesticides that go hand in hand with GMOs damage soil health. Agriculture that relies on GMOs is a losing proposition.”
The Center for Food Safety states, “Genetically engineered foods are different from other foods. Genetic engineering allows, for the first time, foreign genes, bacterial and viral vectors, viral promoters and antibiotic marker systems to be engineered into food.”
While it has not been proven in all studies, there’s potential that genetically engineered foods may contribute to health problems such as:
- antibiotic resistance
- loss of nutrients
Are There Any Benefits?
Are bioengineered food ingredients healthy? In most cases, no. The majority of genetically modified/bioengineered foods are highly refined and processed, meaning they are low in nutrients but may be high in calories.
There are not added health benefits to consuming these foods or ingredients. In other words, technology has not made them healthier foods.
However, they can be appealing because they are typically inexpensive, and they are widely available.
One benefit of the new BE labeling law is that it keeps consumers better informed about what they are buying and eating.
The new labeling is also intended to have “the interest of minimizing costs for producers” in mind. As one article published by Piedmont puts it, “GMOs have been in our food supply for more than 20 years. They are made by scientists who have genetically introduced new traits or characteristics to an organism, allowing it to grow faster, look better, taste sweeter and resist herbicides, etc.”
How to Avoid Them
When grocery shopping, check for new bioengineered labels. The USDA offers two official labels for BE products that contain circular green images with two different sets of text: either “bioengineered” or “derived from bioengineering.” You’re most likely to see these labels on products made with corn, soy, canola oil and sugar, such as some cereals, frozen foods, dressings, etc.
The Non-GMO Project has created its own label known as “the Butterfly” that ensures a food does not contain GMOs or bioengineered ingredients. You can look for the Butterfly label on foods if you want to be sure the food is GMO-free.
The organization has stated: “Bioengineered Food labeling law is ineffective at finding GMOs and avoiding GMOs, largely because of restrictions, loopholes and exemptions. Too much falls outside of the law’s purview for it to be effective. That’s why the Butterfly remains the most rigorous, transparent and trustworthy label for GMO avoidance.”
Here are steps you can take to avoid bioengineered/GMO foods:
- Buy food that is labeled 100 percent organic.
- Purchase products with the Butterfly/non-GMO label.
- Opt for unprocessed, whole foods that contain minimal ingredients (or only one).
- Purchase grass-fed beef and organic dairy products.
- Shop at local farmers markets, and purchase more food from small producers.
- What is bioengineered food? The USDA defines it as foods that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.
- Bioengineered food ingredients include corn, canola, soybeans, sugarbeets and some others. These are found in many processed and refined foods.
- Food producers are now required to use two logos approved by the USDA to label bioengineered food under the new national standard that took effect on Jan. 1, 2022. These labels will replace GMO labeling in most cases.
- While it hasn’t been proven that GMO/bioengineered foods are harmful, they are mostly highly processed products that are lacking nutrients in most cases.