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Science education needed to counteract food phobias and fables on social media — and you can help

Popular food brands like Chipotle and Panera gain market share by feeding on American consumers’ lack of scientific knowledge. Their marketing caters to foodies and contributes to unfounded food phobias that have become more prevalent.

In previous columns, I’ve shared examples of misinformation about food and modern agriculture that are unsupported by scientific truth, but routinely spoon-fed to consumers — and swallowed. Food labels, like the following, are signs of this lack of scientific understanding:

• Antibiotic-free: There’s nothing wrong with this term, except that marketers such as Panera often use it to imply that food products from other sources do contain antibiotics by a sign in each store that reads “Our food is antibiotic free.” The truth is: health regulations require all food to be free of antibiotics.

• rBST-free:  That is, without recombinant bovine growth hormone, a synthetic growth hormone used to stimulate a cow’s appetite resulting in increased milk production. The FDA has stated there is no difference between milk produced with or without rBST, because every drop of milk contains tiny amounts of the cow’s own natural BST (somatotropin) hormone. Our digestive system easily digests BST.

• GMO-free: Genetically engineered (GMO) salmon were developed over 20 years ago. They have been shown to resist disease and grow rapidly. And they’re safe for human consumption — actually safer than wild caught salmon. Yet these fish, marketed in Canada, are still not permitted in the U.S. My favorite product that is advertised as “GMO-free” is Cheerios. Why? They’re made of oats. And oats have not ever been genetically modified.

• Gluten-free: Have you seen the latest product proclaimed to be gluten-free? Believe it or not, there is gluten-free water! And it sells for a premium, no less. Gluten, a protein primarily in wheat, barley and rye, is a real concern for people with the autoimmune disorder, celiac disease. For them, it impairs the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients into the bloodstream. For the rest of us, it’s not a health concern, despite all the gluten-free labels.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms help spread the misinformation like wildfire. Orthorexia nervosa, which literally means a “fixation on righteous eating,” is a condition first coined about 20 years ago to describe an unhealthy obsession with eating only foods deemed healthy. I believe social media heightens this kind of unfounded insecurity about food.

Food producers can use social media — and face-to-face conversations with non-farming friends, relatives and acquaintances — to help set the record straight about modern agriculture and food safety. And how science strengthens agriculture’s ability to meet the nutritional needs of a growing world population.

How did we get from improved breeding of plants and animals to thinking that nothing is safe unless it has one of those “free-from-something-or-other” labels? The science that goes into improving agricultural productivity has its roots in the work of Gregor Mendel, a 19th century Austrian monk who experimented with cross breeding peas in his garden. Known as the father of genetics, he didn’t discover DNA. Rather, he discovered the role of base pairs of genes in heredity. While working with peas, he selected those with certain desirable traits to pass down generation to generation. This has led to later discoveries of seedless watermelons, polled (without horns) cattle, hybrids of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton, and superior lines of pigs, cattle and other food-producing animals.

Scientists have recently learned how to edit genes — that is, to snip from genes amino acids that cause undesirable genetic traits. This gene-editing is called CRISPR. For instance, CRISPR can be used to remove the genetic code associated with horn development from developing bovine embryos.

This eliminates the need to surgically dehorn calves, a practice done to prevent calves from injuring each other and the cattlemen working with them. Cattle are typically dehorned as early as possible after birth. But this isn’t possible for cattle on the range, until the calves are weaned at six to ten months. By then, the procedure requires anesthesia and restraint of the calves.

When the horn genetic code is removed in gene editing, no horn tissue develops in the calf. Even offspring of this calf do not develop horns.

Genetic engineering also promotes human health. Insulin, which is used to treat people with diabetes, used to be extracted from the pancreas of cows at slaughter plants. In recent years, medical doctors have found through genetic engineering a much safer and higher quality source of insulin for individuals with diabetes.

Through this genetic engineering process, the insulin-producing gene is inserted into common E. coli bacteria. The genetically modified bacteria are grown in huge vats to produce large quantities of insulin.

Here’s another example: Some humans have a genetic disease that causes major blood vessels to swell in the throat. This swelling, triggered by a throat infection, causes extreme pressure. Without medical intervention, the patient will die. Medical researchers have identified a special C1 protein that modulates this inflammation, preventing the life-threatening reaction.

Dutch researchers developed transgenic rabbits, with an inserted C1 gene, to produce milk that contains the C1 protein. The protein is extracted from the milk to produce pills to treat people with the C1 genetic defect, preventing throat swelling episodes and allowing them to lead a normal life. And genetic engineering is used in agriculture to increase productivity and improve resistance to disease and drought.

A good dose of science education for consumers, politicians and regulators would go a long way toward promoting acceptance and advancement of GMO so farmers can produce a sufficient amount of food for the world population, which is projected to increase by another couple billion people by 2050.

Of course, that will take years of message repetition to accomplish as to the safety of genetically engineered foods. But with your help in spreading the word, we could get there sooner. Meanwhile even with all of the caution and fear about genetically engineered food, transgender individuals have available to them sex re-assignment surgery including large doses of hormone therapy to become the individual they want to be. Go figure!