Consumers have learned to recognize and avoid a host of processed-food foes: monosodium glutamate, trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, myriad preservatives and a variety of "artificial" ingredients.
Yet the ultimate Frankenfoods still elude many health-conscious shoppers, even those who routinely read labels. Genetically modified organisms — GMOs — are never identified as such, but they lurk at almost every level of the processed-food industry and morph into an array of foodlike substances, most derived from corn and soybeans. Think deceptively benign terms such as "whey," "malt," "food starch" and "fructose," in addition to the tongue-twisters "methylcellulose," "cyclodextrin" and many more.
"It's when you get into "… those fractioned parts of corn and soy that the processed-food industry uses "… that's what makes food cheap," says Annie Hoy, outreach manager for Ashland Food Co-op.
Genetic engineering, the science that creates GMOs, inserts DNA from one species into a different — usually entirely unrelated — species. Among the most infamous examples is the splicing of salmon-scale genes into tomato DNA to yield fruits with stronger skins.
Scientists' goal is to engineer foods that are easier to grow, more productive, resistant to disease or spoilage or just more visually appealing. These traits cannot transpire outside a laboratory nor via traditional breeding methods and often involve the use of bacteria or viruses in the engineering.