Biotechnology Specific to Food/Nutrition

Biotechnology has been used in many areas related to food and nutrition. In fact, the first commercially produced genetically engineered product was human insulin. Next was an enzyme, chymosin, produced with biotechnology that replaced the rennet used in cheese production.

In 1982, biotechnology was used to develop human insulin for diabetes treatment. Prior to this development, animal insulins from the pancreas of cows and pigs were used. The synthetic human insulin has several advantages, including fewer insulin antibodies, less insulin allergy, more rapid absorption, earlier peak, and shorter duration time than the animal insulins (4).

Chymosin, an enzyme which replaces rennet in cheese production, was first approved for use in the United States in 1990. Not only has it eliminated the need to use rennet from calves’ stomachs in cheese production, it has also advanced cheese production due to its purity and quality compared to rennet.

A more recent focus of biotechnology has been to enhance the nutrient content of food. This area includes the development of oils with reduced saturated fat content and rice that has been modified to have high carotene (a vitamin A precursor) levels (1).

There are foods and crops produced using biotechnology that are available in the United States. These include (1):

  • Tomatoes with delayed ripening traits that have better flavor, remain fresh longer and withstand transport better than traditional tomatoes.
  • Soybeans, canola, corn, cotton and potatoes resistant to either insects, herbicides or both.
  • Squash resistant to a virus that often kills the vegetable on the vine.
  • Soybeans and canola that produce reduced saturated fat cooking oil.

All of these foods have undergone rigorous testing. Testing and labeling of genetically modified foods will be discussed further in Lesson Two. For information on the American Dietetics Association’s official stand on biotechnology, read the ADA position paper on biotechnology (2).

Discussion Question:

When was the last time you saw or used a product created with biotechnology?