Bioengineered Foods


Bioengineered foods are foods that have had a gene from a different species of plant or other organism introduced to produce desired characteristics or traits. Bioengineered foods are also referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or living modified organisms (LMOs).


The general purpose of bioengineering is to create plants or animals that are in some way superior to a current breed of plant or animal in existence. For example, some genetically engineered plants are modified to resist specific insects or diseases. This means that those plants are more likely to grow large and to stay healthy. Because most farming uses pesticides or insecticides to protect plants, plants that are bioengineered to be pest resistant allow farmers to use less of these chemicals. This change is positive for the environment, as well as possibly less costly for the farmer, and can often provide cheaper products for the consumer.

Six potatoes grown using gene splicing biotechnology to make them resistant to certain insects.

Six potatoes grown using gene splicing biotechnology to make them resistant to certain insects.
(Thomas Pantages/Medical

In addition to producing heartier crops, some bioengineering is done to improve the taste of crops. Other bioengineering is done to introduce traits that will help the crops get to the consumer in better condition or have a longer period of freshness. In 1994, the first bioengineered food to be introduced to the consumer market in the United States was the Flavr Savr tomato. This tomato was bioengineered to ripen more slowly and to remain on the vine longer so that it would be available to consumers later in the year than other tomatoes. However, it remained on the market for only three years because it proved not to be economically viable.


All living organisms have deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in their cells. DNA is the chemical compound that carries all of the information needed to produce and sustain life in an organism. DNA is made up of strands of nucleic acids that are grouped to form individual genes. Each gene contains the information needed to synthesize a particular protein. Synthesized proteins are responsible for individual characteristics, such as hair and eye color in humans.

When scientists genetically engineer a plant, they take a gene from another plant or organism such as a bacterium and insert it into the original plant or trade it for a gene in the original plant. This trading of genes is called transposition.

Scientists did not learn how to insert and transpose genes successfully until the 1980s. However, long before this, people had been trying to create better, heartier plants and animals through selective breeding. For hundreds of years farmers had selected and bred animals based on characteristics that they wanted the offspring to have. Farmers might decide to breed a cow that gave a higher quantity of milk than other cows in the hopes of producing more cows that gave an above-average quantity of milk. Farmers also planted the seeds of plants that had desirable characteristics, hoping to produce more plants with those same traits.

Although many people were engaged in trying to make new and better plants and animals for many years, it was not until the work of Gregor Mendel in the nineteenth century that people began to understand how traits were passed from one generation to the next. Mendel did research on pea plants and discovered that traits were passed from one generation to the next in a way that could be predicated. Peas had a much simpler inheritance pattern than most organisms, so even with this knowledge it was very difficult for scientists to produce plants with the exact traits they wanted. Plants with the desired trait had to be cross bred, and then plants from the resulting generation that had the desired traits had to be selected and cross bred again and again. It takes many generations of plants to produce offspring that regularly have the desired trait.

Today, scientists do not have to cross breed plants repeatedly to get a new variety of plant that has the traits or characteristics they desire. Instead, they search for a gene in another plant that will produce the desired characteristic and insert it into the DNA of the original plant. Often two or three different genes are inserted, sometimes each from different plants or animals. Plants that have had this done are considered bioengineered. As of 2018, 94% of all soybeans grown in the United States, 90% of all cotton, and 88% of all corn had been genetically engineered. In addition, about two-thirds of all processed foods contained some form of bioengineered crop.

A carotenoid provitamin A in dark green and yellow fruits and vegetables that has one-twelfth the vitamin A activity of retinol.
A section of DNA that includes information about how to create certain proteins synthesized by plants that have been genetically modified.
Protein biosynthesis—
A biochemical process in which proteins are synthesized from simple amino acids.
A substance that the body can convert into a vitamin.
A compound required by the body in small amounts to assist in energy production and in cell growth and maintenance. Vitamins are essential for life but cannot be made by the body and must be obtained through diet (with the exception of vitamin D, which can be synthesized with exposure to sunlight).

Bioengineered foods are regulated and monitored in the United States by three different government agencies: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The FDA is responsible for the regulation and labeling of the bioengineered foods, the USDA oversees the safety and completeness of test fields used by bioengineering companies to test their new plants, and the EPA regulates any bioengineered plants that contain pesticide-related genes.

In the United States, labeling of bioengineered foods is voluntary and is left to the discretion of the company. The European Union has strict labeling laws for food and animal feed containing bioengineered components in EU member states. The EU laws require that any food or animal feed product containing a proportion of bioengineered product greater than 0.9% must be labeled. This can include statements such as “genetically modified” or “made from genetically modified [the name of the ingredient]” on the package. On foods that are not packaged, the EU requires a sign displaying this information to be placed near the item for sale, such as on a counter or a supermarket shelf.


There is a small chance that some people might have an unexpected allergic reaction to proteins synthesized by plants that have been genetically modified. This is unlikely, however, as the FDA regulates bioengineered foods and requires tests for safety and the presence of known allergens before the food is allowed on the market.


There are no expected interactions between bioengineered foods and any other foods, medicines, or products.


There are no complications expected from consuming bioengineered foods.

Parental concerns

Some parents might be concerned that allergens that could affect their child might be introduced into unexpected plant species. Ninety percent of food allergies in the United States are to milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, nuts, wheat, and legumes (including peanuts and soybeans). The FDA ensures that each bioengineered food is tested to ensure that none of the common proteins that cause reactions to these foods can be sold to consumers. They also test for additional, less common proteins that have been known to cause allergic reactions.

See also Food allergies ; Protein ; Vitamin A ; Vitamins .




Bodiguel, Luc, and Michael Cardwell, eds. The Regulation of Genetically Modified Organisms: Comparative Approaches. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Forman, Lillian E. Genetically Modified Foods. Edina, MN: ABDO, 2010.

Healey, Justin, ed. Genetically Modified Foods and Crops. Thirroul, NSW, Australia: Spinney Press, 2010.

Miller, Debra A., ed. Genetically Engineered Foods. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012.


Gamarra, Luis Fernando Rimachi, Jorge Enrique Alacantara, and Rodomiro Ortiz. “Controversy over GM Maize in Peru.” Nature 470, no. 7332 (February 3, 2011): 39.

McHughen, Alan, and Robert Wager. “Popular Misconceptions: Agricultural Biotechnology.” New Biotechnology 27, no. 6 (December 2010): 724–28.

Stone, Richard. “Activists Go on Warpath Against Transgenic Crops—And Scientists.” Science 331, no. 6020 (February 25, 2011): 1000–1001.


U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC, 20250, (202) 720-2791, .

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 10903 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring, MD, 20993-0002, (888) INFO-FDA (463-6332), .

World Health Organization, Avenue Appia 20, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland, +41 22 791-2111, Fax: +41 22 791-3111,, .

Tish Davidson, MA
Revised by David Newton

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.