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Would consumers buy transgenic food if they believed it would boost health?

By Stephen Daniells+

02-Jun-2014
Last updated on 02-Jun-2014 at 16:18 GMT

Would consumers buy transgenic food if they believed it would boost health?

Health and other consumer benefits may help make transgenic or genetically engineered (GE) food more acceptable to consumers, but the food industry needs to be more transparent to win back trust, says the immediate past president of IFT.

A new scientific paper by scientists from Kansas State University examined the consumer acceptance of transgenic tomatoes with enhanced flavonol and anthocyanin content developed by using genes from onion and snapdragon Antirrhinum majus, respectively.

Results published in the Journal of Food Science indicated that overall consumer liking of the two transgenic tomatoes exceeded wild-type tomatoes.

“A high percentage of the panelists (96%) indicated they would purchase and consume transgenic foods if they were shown to be healthier than non-transgenic foods,” wrote the researchers.

Commenting on the study’s findings, John Ruff, immediate past president of the IFT, told FoodNavigator-USA that there are already a “fair number of surveys” which showed that people are mostly positive to GMOs if they see a benefit, be it a health benefit or other.

The majority of GE food consumed today was developed to reduce herbicide and pesticide use or boost yield, with less focus on boosting the nutrient profile of the plants.

So is it too late?

“I don’t think it is too late to start talking about potential health benefits of transgenic foods,” said Ruff. “I do believe that GMOs are never going to disappear. I’m convinced we’ll need them to feed the world.”

If the industry was to focus on transgenic plants with enhanced nutrient profiles, the issue of labeling would go away, he said. “If you have a fruit or vegetable that is healthier then you’d want to label it,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s an image that the industry is trying to hide what they’re doing.”

“The broader issue is that the food industry who market products to the population has got to figure out how to be transparent to regain trust.”

“We’d be better to just label it,” he said.

“The irony is that it’s almost impossible for the US industry to replace all those ingredients and components.

“I understand the logic when people point to Europe, the food industry there sources non-GM ingredients, but in the US we’ve had 20 years of using increasing amounts of these ingredients and I don’t believe it’s do-able.”

Flavr Savr

“If you have a fruit or vegetable that is healthier then you’d want to label it” - John Ruff

The new study from Kansas State is said to be the first to report the “results of sensory tests of transgenic tomatoes by a consumer panel representing the general consuming public”.

In addition to liking the transgenic tomatoes, the researchers also found that 14% of the panelists changed their attitudes positively toward GE fruit and vegetables.

Whether this leads to a success commercial product remains to be seen. Tomatoes have not had the best success in the GE space, with the short-lived Flavr Savr tomato one of the first casualties of the anti-GMO campaign. The tomato, developed by Calgene, holds the notable honor of being the first commercially grown GE food approved for human consumption. The tomato was developed to stay firmer for longer, which would be considered a consumer benefit.

(Similar technology was used by Zeneca in the UK for a tomato with higher solids that was used in tomato paste. Cans of the paste retailed in Sainsbury's and Safeway for two years in the late 1990s, and briefly out-sold the non-GE competition.)

“We all regret in some way that Flavr Savr wasn’t more successful,” said Ruff. “By focusing on the agronomical aspects of GMOs, and not the benefits directly for consumers, it may cost us in the long term regarding public sentiment.

Source: Journal of Food Science
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1111/1750-3841.1247
“Consumer Sensory Analysis of High Flavonoid Transgenic Tomatoes”
Authors: W. Lim, R. Miller, J. Park, S. Park

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