By Paul R. Billings

Tales of Terminator seeds, Frankenfood, and toxic baby pabulum are proliferating. An increasingly strident trade war over policies concerning genetically modified foods, alienating traditional political allies, is gaining momentum. 

As our grocery store shelves become increasingly crowded with new kinds of food, a reassessment of the role of what we eat in health and disease seems wise. Shouldn't we be asking: Is food a drug? One of the triumphs of 20th century biomedical science has been the demonstration of the role of food's constituents - its proteins, fats, sugars, vitamins and minerals - in our metabolism. Basic processes like movement, temperature regulation, and thinking depend on a consistent supply of key nutrients. The components of food are the basic prescription for all aspects of our normal life and health. 

When ill, eating can be effective treatment. Fevers, faints, high blood pressure, even heart diseases can find remedy in diet. And the actions of prescribed medications are often modified by what we eat. Antibiotics, ulcer treatments, and blood thinners are examples of prescription drugs whose effectiveness can be altered by food. 

Genetically manipulated food may not have the same medicinal properties: Research on altered soybeans shows they are not equally beneficial in important properties. Interactions with medications could change as well. 

Some people get sick after taking a new medication. The same is true for food. Food allergies and intolerance are common. The altering of food by the insertion of new genes can create new immunological complications. Signs of nut allergy are produced by certain genetically manipulated foods that previously were harmless. 

In rare cases, children can develop mental retardation and die by simply eating a normal American diet. Careful management of their intake is crucial to their well-being. The alteration of foods could interfere with these dietary treatments. 

The safety of new or altered drugs is extensively documented prior to their public release. But genetically manipulated foods are not similarly scrutinized. Individuals whose health depends on a stable food supply may be particularly vulnerable to uncertain or unknown food content. Like swallowed pills, food is broken down in our gastrointestinal systems and absorbed. New proteins or the genes that make them, eaten in altered foods, enter our bodies. Genes that confer antibiotic resistance are used to manufacture new food products. These genes could move from what we have eaten into us or into the bacteria that inhabit our intestines. Such transfers might alter our health directly or change the beneficial symbiosis between people and their bugs. 

Finally, we depend on a stable food supply, just as we trust that the water we drink and the air we breathe are safe. For centuries we have purchased food from people we trusted. The reliable qualities and properties of food have allowed it to play a role in rituals and religious practices. Altering food may deprive believers of the assurance that food is pure or kosher. Fear of food's content can alter one's sense of well-being. In extreme cases, malnutrition could occur. 

The Food and Drug Administration has dealt with this issue with unscientific blinders. If altered foods look the same, they argue that their medicinal properties are substantially the same as well. If two different pills are the same color and taste similarly, are they equivalent? 

Is that safe? 

Food is a drug, is part of medical treatments, and plays many roles in a healthy culture. That genetically engineered food will hurt some people is a reasonable presumption. Like all drugs, the medicinal qualities of food need to be known and reliable. Though it may be a bitter pill, acknowledging that food is a drug and assuring its quality is good medicine. 

It's also a proper and hitherto neglected function of government.


Printed in the Boston Globe, 28 August 1999

(c) Boston Globe

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