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Biotechnology Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals

The news stories about the advances or horrors of biotechnology (depending on your point of view) are becoming more and more frequent. Cloned this and cloned that: first a sheep, now three goats. Taking genes from one species and putting them into another. The fear of "frankenstein foods" and the alarm over the fact that many of North America"s big crops - corn, soyabean, canola now have foreign genes in them.

There has been growing confusion about biotechnology, genetic engineering and what role, if any, they play in the area of nutraceuticals and functional food. A few definitions may makes things a little clearer.

Biotechnology: The use of organisms or their components in industrial or commercial processes, which can be aided by the techniques of genetic manipulation in developing novel plants for agriculture or industry. (Chambers Science and Technology Dictionary)

Genetic Engineering: Alteration of the DNA of a cell for purposes of research, as a means of manufacturing animal proteins, correcting genetic defects, or making improvements to plants and animals bred by man. (Collins, Dictionary)


It should be understood that biotechnology is a collection of techniques some of which but not all involve genetic engineering.

So how do these terms - biotechnology and genetic engineering - get mixed into functional foods and nutraceuticals. There are some who believe that in the future biotechnology may be used to produce foods with enhanced health properties. For example, it is widely believed that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial against cardiovascular disease. To-day there are sources of omega-3 fatty acids available to the consumer such as some fish, flax seed and some vegetable oils. Using biotechnology it may be possible in the future to produce a vegetable oil that has ten or twenty times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids compared to present day oils. Such an oil would obviously be very useful to include in the diet of patients prone to heart disease. But is it a "frankenstein food"? It would then be up to the consumer to decide whether she/he wants to consume an oil which was extracted from a plant produced using biotechnology.

Until we have safe ways to increase the levels of beneficial components of certain foods, we will have to be content to pick and choose a wide variety of foods so that we consume a healthy diet.

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