Just one misconception

posted in: Commentary | 3

I just got back from a visit with a nutritionist. I generally make good choices, but wanted to get concrete numbers for what my daily fat, protein, and carb intakes should be. She was really nice, and was candid enough to say that dark green veggies actually have more calcium than milk. Calcium from plants is actually up to twice as digestible as that from milk. Water cress, bok choy, and broccoli are all good sources (and have more calcium than milk per 100 calories of food). She admitted that industry has way too much effect on the food pyramid and doctor’s recommendations, especially when it comes to meat and milk. The best diet is: everything in moderation, except whole grains, veggies, and exercise. We all know that, but it doesn’t make headlines. One thing we do like about the new food pyramid is that they include legumes, nuts, and seeds as proteins, and suggest eating these instead of animal protein for at least some meals.

She asked if I was an undergrad, so I said that I’m a PhD student majoring in plant genetics, improving nutrition of corn. With a half smile, she said “just don’t go putting wheat genes in corn, or the celiacs won’t be able to eat it anymore.” Celiac disease is basically an intolerance of gluten in wheat, rye, barley, and possibly oats. When celiacs eat gluten from these sources, they get a lot of nasty symptoms like pain and diarrhea. If they keep eating gluten, they have a much higher risk of gastro-intestinal cancer (from celiac.com).

Having this gluten properly labeled is of great concern to celiacs, as is expected. The idea of other food plants containing the very thing that makes them sick is understandably very frightening. They are against genetic engineering of food crops for this very reason. I really wish scientists did a better job of educating the public. As I explained to the nutritionist, when scientists engineer a plant, only one or a few genes are involved. Let’s say that we find a strain of wheat that has great tolerance to salty soils, and farmers want corn with that trait. Scientists can find the gene or genes responsible for the tolerance. The gene of interest is either cut out of the wheat genome or is synthesized with a machine. Then, that gene is used to transform corn, usually with a gene gun. Only that one wheat gene is used. The corn plant has the instructions now on how to be salt tolerant. It does not have the instructions on how to make gluten. It will therefore contain no gluten, and won’t make celiacs sick.

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!