Many of us like to sample new foods we come across in the grocery store—why not try an exciting, even innovative product we may have heard about from a friend, family member, or social media? The IFIC 2023 Food and Health Survey found that 42% of consumers have encountered food or nutrition information on social media, and that of that subgroup, more than half (51%) have tried a new recipe and 41% have bought a new brand or product because of what they have seen promoted there.
Yet although we may be willing to try new foods and brands, many of us still like to educate ourselves on new products before (or while) making a purchase by reading the labels on our foods. The Food and Health Survey also found that 55% percent of consumers “always” or “often” pay attention to the labels on food and beverage packaging when shopping in a store; and 46% always or often pay attention to labels when shopping online. These labels can tell us where our food was made, give nutrition information, and provide detailed ingredient lists. Indeed, ingredient lists for many foods can reveal how innovations over the years have led to new sources for recipes that can be more sustainable and accessible for producers and consumers alike.
While all ingredients that are used in our foods are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), you may still have a few questions about new ingredient technologies. Let’s take a look at some of the ingredient innovations that have piqued public interest lately—and can be found on shelves today.
Precision fermentation is a process that uses microorganisms to produce edible ingredients, such as protein, that can then be used in food production. For example, precision fermentation manufacturers have figured out how to produce dairy proteins without using dairy cows. This exciting technology means that the proteins you would normally find in milk, cheese, or ice cream can be produced by microbes that can be harvested and mixed with water and other ingredients to make the dairy products you are accustomed to enjoying. The precision fermentation process has become more popular in recent years as an approach to making dairy products in particular—with environmental sustainability, manufacturing productivity, and nutrition all in mind. And contrary to its technical name, precision fermentation is not an entirely new practice. Precision fermentation-made rennet, a set of enzymes that are a key ingredient in cheese-making and are naturally found in the stomachs of baby cows, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration as far back as 1990.
In addition to the documented safety of precision fermentation and the sustainability potential of being able to manufacture non-animal-based yet nutritionally indistinguishable dairy products without using cattle and calves, public opinion surveys have shown that many consumers are open to welcoming precision fermentation into their grocery carts. IFIC’s “Innovations in Alternative Proteins: Understanding the Viewpoints and Purchasing Behaviors of U.S. Meat Eaters” research recently found that 37% of consumers are interested in trying precision-fermented ingredients foods—a notable increase from the 27% of consumers that expressed interest in these products in 2021.
Bioengineered Ingredients and GMOs
Over the past year or so, you may have noticed more food products with labels that inform shoppers of foods containing bioengineered ingredients, including GMOs (genetically modified organisms). These GMO labels, required in the U.S. beginning in 2022 in a series of regulations set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are not meant to indicate safety issues, lack of quality, or compromised nutritional value—they are simply there to keep consumers informed about the exact origins of ingredients in their food. The regulations require companies to place clear language or a recognizable symbol on all products that contain bioengineered ingredients.
There is a relatively short list of approved GMO crops available in the U.S. They include genetically modified soybeans, field and sweet corn, canola, cotton (used in cottonseed oil production), alfalfa, sugar beets, summer squash, papaya, apples, pink pineapples, and potatoes. Each one of these types of GMO crops is just as safe and nutritious as its non-GMO counterpart. In fact, the safety of GMOs has been evaluated by many food safety authorities. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the USDA have ensured that GMOs are safe for human, plant, and animal health—as has the World Health Organization. U.S. authorities, in addition to evaluating the safety of GMOs, also impose requirements on the production and introduction of new GMOs into the food system. If you’d like to learn more about each U.S. agency’s role in regulating GMOs, this newly developed web resource library published by the FDA does a great job.
You may wonder if precision fermentation ingredients and GMOs are the same thing. While precision fermentation uses biotechnology to elicit the production of ingredients from microbes, the final products do not have any detectable DNA in them that is linked to the production source. Thus, products containing precision fermentation ingredients are not required to add labeling language about the use of biotechnology—but similar language can be voluntarily put on labels by the manufacturer.
If you’re interested in new innovations in food technology, keep this knowledge about precision fermentation, GMOs, ingredient lists and labels handy for your next shopping trip—and rest reassured that all new (and old) ingredients in our U.S. food system are regulated and safe to eat.