Over the years, we all have seen new foods come into our lives from grocery stores, food trucks, restaurants, or other food service venues. New foods can be fun and exciting to try, and it can be intriguing to learn about how and where they are produced. Many foodies and conscientious consumers alike often find knowing more about their food creates familiarity, comfort and reliability; but there are some instances when information about food doesn’t immediately incite positive feelings. This can be the case with bioengineered foods, which include genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While GMO foods have been part of our food system for more than two decades and the safety of GMOs has been consistently affirmed by national and international food safety authorities.
Many people are surprised to know there are only a small subset of GMO crops available in the U.S.; these include soybeans, field and sweet corn, canola, cotton used in cottonseed oil production, alfalfa, sugar beets, summer squash, papaya, apples and potatoes. These foods are identical to their conventionally grown counterparts in terms of safety and nutrition; often the biggest difference is on the farmer’s end. These crops often grow more effectively under harsh conditions and need less inputs such as pesticides, water and energy. These facts are known in some circles, but the background of bioengineered foods is news that still needs to be shared and talked about regularly. Let’s look at some recent research that’s been done to see how folks perceive bioengineered foods today.
What We are Familiar With
Our 2021 Food and Health Survey asked a series of questions about food choices and perceptions about bioengineered food; there were some direct lines that can be drawn between familiarity and the decision to seek or avoid bioengineered foods. When survey takers were asked to best describe their familiarity with bioengineered foods or ingredients, 31% said that they knew a fair amount or more about them. However, 50% said that they have heard the terms but know very little about them. Only 19% of consumers noted that they knew nothing about bioengineered foods/ingredients.
With over 80% of survey respondents having some level of familiarity with these types of foods and ingredients, we wondered how this would translate into shopping and eating habits. Forty percent of this subgroup noted that they neither try to avoid or consume bioengineered foods/ingredients, rather, they stay aware of them; of this group, 14% said they don’t consider this at all while shopping. However, 27% said that they make an effort to limit or avoid bioengineered foods/ingredients.
With more than a quarter of the familiar group having responded that they limit or avoid these foods, we thought to also ask that if the food had other desirable characteristics, would that change their tendency to avoid these foods. The top three characteristics that could potentially sway people included the following responses:
- If the bioengineered food was the only option, 48% said they would consider purchasing,
- If it was labeled as “environmentally sustainable,” 37% said they would likely purchase or consider purchasing; or
- If it tasted better, 36% said they would likely purchase or consider purchasing.
Characteristics such as cost or being more convenient had the least impact on influencing avoidance.
Fitting on Our Safety Check List?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) work in concert to ensure the safety of our food system, which includes bioengineered foods. These foods are regulated, have been thoroughly evaluated and deemed safe for human, plant and animal health. Nicely, our data seems to indicate the regulation of these governing agencies doesn’t escape impacting public perceptions. When survey takers were asked, “How confident are you in the safety of the U.S. food supply?” 68% noted that they were very or somewhat confidant, which was also the case in 2020.
To learn how bioengineered foods fit on a list of food safety concerns that impact consumer perceptions and choice, we asked survey takers to rank their top three most important food safety issues from a list of 10 potential options. As we’ve seen in the past several years, the top three issues included foodborne illness from bacteria, chemicals in food, and carcinogens/cancer-causing chemicals in food. Bioengineered foods or foods that contain bioengineered ingredients came in ninth on the list; only 17% ranked this option in their top three.
While the data indicate that many of us aren’t actively avoiding bioengineered foods or have them on our “food safety radars,” there are still a considerable number of Americans that don’t know much about bioengineered foods. This shows that there is room for education on how these foods safely fit into our food system, enhance nutrition access and support farming productivity. Hopefully, these consumer insights will continue to fuel the fire to promote informative resources and encourage educational initiatives on bioengineered foods.