Psychological and Sociological Criteria
Social and psychological factors strongly influence food habits. For most people, the knowledge that food is readily available provides a sense of security. For people with psychologically based eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and bulimia-nervosa, however, food gives no such security. The aim of every food company’s advertising is to develop a sense of security among consumers about its products. A soft drink held in the hand of an athlete, the cereal touted by a child’s favorite cartoon character, and diet foods offered by slim, vivacious spokespeople create positive associations in people’s minds for these products and assure them of their quality.
Social conscience and peer pressure sometimes influence food choices. One recent trend has seen consumers moving toward more environmentally sound purchases. At a buffet, the presence of other people may influence a person’s choice of food and beverages. Psychological needs intertwine with social factors when foods are used more for a display of hospitality or status than for mere nourishment. Caviar is just fish eggs, but is esteemed by many as a delicacy. Beer tastes terrible to most people when they try it for the first time, but the social surroundings in which it is consumed may cause it to become an acquired taste.
Genetically Engineered Food
Psychological and social factors are involved in the formation of public attitudes toward the genetic engineering of foods. Genetically engineered foods, sometimes called genetically modified organisms, are slowly gaining ground, but not everyone is knowledgeable about or accepting of the new foods. Some people object to these foods on moral grounds. Others fear them without fully understanding what they constitute.
In the past, it took years to accomplish hybridization, or crossbreeding, by matching “the best to the best” in the plant, livestock, and fishery worlds to achieve the desired results. Traditional ways of breeding to combine the genes of two species in order to obtain a specific trait were time consuming, cumbersome, and unpredictable. The age of genetic engineering began when DNA was isolated from a bacterium, then duplicated and inserted into another bacterium. Researchers can now identify the genes responsible for a desired trait and reorganize or insert them from the cells of one bacterium, plant, or animal into the cells of other bacteria, plants, or animals. The goal of this process is to produce new species or improved versions of existing ones. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s goals for genetic engineering are to increase production potential, improve resistance to pests and disease, and develop more nutritious plant and animal products.
Genetic engineering has so far resulted in ripening-delayed fruits, improved protein content in grains, potatoes that absorb less fat when fried, insect-resistant apples, and more than 50 other plant products. The first genetically engineered food was developed so it could be left on the vine until fully ripened and flavorful, and yet still withstand the hardship of shipping without bruising. The Flavr Savr tomato softens at a slower rate because of genetic engineering that reduced the activity of an enzyme responsible for breaking down the cell wall during ripening. The previously widespread practice was to pick tomatoes while they were green to allow them to be shipped before ripening, because unripened tomatoes would be less easily damaged during transport. This is still the case with tomatoes other than the newer varieties, and it has meant that most consumers are left desiring the succulence of a vine-ripened tomato.
Other genetically engineered foods include celery without strings, squash that is resistant to a common plant virus, presweetened melons, and tomatoes resistant to both cold and hot temperatures. Genes have also been reorganized in strawberries to increase their natural sweetness. Possible genetically engineered foods of the future include cow’s milk with some of the immune benefits of human milk, fruits containing higher amounts of vitamins A and C, fats and oils containing more omega-3 fatty acids, foods that generate proteins that could be used as oral vaccines, and soybeans providing a more complete source of protein.
Some consumers view genetic engineering as an invasion of nature’s domain, and fear that scientists are treading on dangerous ground. The concern most commonly expressed to the Food and Drug Administration by consumers was the possibility that the proteins produced by these new genes could cause allergic reactions. In one study, soy was infused with a gene from Brazil nuts, a known allergen, or allergy-causing substance. Some people participating in the experiment did become ill, but this was a preliminary research study and the modified soy was infused with a gene from Brazil nuts, a known allergen, or allergy-causing substance.
Researchers would be prudent to avoid food allergens in the process of genetically engineering foods because, even though protein food allergies affect only a small percentage of the population, they still exist and can cause problems. Another concern is that genetically engineered plants might “escape” into the wild, take over, and change the environment, although scientists assure us that such plants are no more dangerous than traditionally bred crops. The greatest fear for some is that genetic engineering will lead to researchers using this type of biotechnology to try to “improve” the human race.
Others, for religious or cultural reasons, do not want certain animal genes appearing in plant foods. For example, if swine genes were inserted into vegetables for some purpose, those vegetables would not be considered kosher. In one instance, a group of chefs refused to use a genetically engineered tomato when they found out that its disease resistance was obtained from a mouse gene. Vegetarians may object to a fish gene being placed in a tomato to provide resistance to freezing. Despite the controversy over animal genes being inserted in plant foods, however, bacteria, plants, and animals already share a large number of the more than 100,000 genes found in higher organisms. The line between “plant genes” and “animal genes” is thus already blurred. Nevertheless, people’s attitudes about genetic engineering repeatedly reveals that consumers are more likely to accept crop biotechnology than that conducted on animals or fish.
The Food and Drug Administration accepts genetically engineered foods as posing no risk to health or safety, and for this reason it does not require mandatory labeling, unless they contain new allergens, modified nutritional profiles, or represent a new plant.