Biotech sees role in obesity fight

Meeting in S.F., industry experts tout engineered vegetable oils as healthier.

By Edie Lau -- Bee Science Writer

Published Monday, June 7, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO - The biotechnology industry, ever eager to answer the world's problems, climbed on the bandwagon Sunday in the battle against obesity.

It was a notable shift for an industry that, just one year ago, convened in Sacramento with governments from around the globe to highlight biotech solutions to hunger.

Speaking on the opening day of the Biotechnology Industry Association's annual convention, held this year in the Moscone Center, Monsanto Co. Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Robert Fraley said the industry's interests constantly evolve.

"Science is continuously improving the quantity and quality of food production," he said.

The focus of his presentation, pitched to the media, was vegetable oils designed with fewer harmful and more healthful fatty acids. One Monsanto project in the works is a soybean engineered with a gene from a marine alga to boost the bean's production of omega-3 fatty acids, the kind of fat found naturally in salmon.

Along the same lines, Dow AgroSciences since 2000 has been selling to restaurants and other industrial users a canola oil particularly low in saturated fats and transfats, which are associated with heart disease, said David Dzisiak, an oil guru for Dow.

Dow's canola is not genetically engineered, but was produced through conventional breeding sped up with the help of biotech tools such as DNA analysis.

The use of genetic engineering is controversial, especially with food.While many biotech proponents predict consumers will welcome meals engineered to be healthier, consumer surveys by the International Food Information Council, an arm of the food industry, show decreasing enthusiasm for biotech cooking oils. In January, 40 percent of respondents said they would be interested in buying oils engineered to reduce saturated fat, down from 57 percent in 1999.

Whether offering healthier oils will make much headway against obesity is another question.

"That's trivial compared with getting people to eat less energy-dense (high-calorie) foods," Barry Popkin, a nutritionist and agricultural economist, said in a telephone interview from his office at the University of North Carolina.

Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and now dean of the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, raised the same issue. An ardent spokesman against obesity, Kessler joined the session Sunday to describe obesity's toll on health and society.

Kessler said nothing in his prepared remarks about how biotechnology could help solve the problem. When asked by a reporter how much engineered oils could help, he looked at the men from Monsanto and Dow and asked a question of his own: "How much calories are in this stuff? Do we have the ability to cook meals with a low-calorie value? I don't know if science is ready to do that."

A brunch served to participants at the obesity presentation coincidentally confirmed his point. An appetizer of shrimp with zucchini salad and creamy pumpkin dressing was accompanied by a cantaloupe drink, followed by an entree of chicken breasts with corn pudding and papaya-avocado relish. Dessert was caramelized banana cobbler.

Nutritional analyses distributed on recipe cards to diners showed that the meal packed 1,244 calories, 39 percent from fat.

The menu, prepared by a gourmet chef with a doctorate in biochemistry, was said to be built around biotech ingredients. In reality, most of the dishes were not genetically engineered, the chef, Robert Del Grande of Café Annie in Houston, admitted in an interview afterward. "The only one I know for sure was the papayas," Del Grande said.

The hitch was that some of the featured biotech foods are experimental. Others on the market were not in season, such as sweet corn, Del Grande said. Moreover, although nearly half of the corn grown in the United States is engineered - genetically modified to manufacture its own pesticide and/or survive herbicide treatment - most of the engineered varieties are used as livestock feed or in processed foods such as cornstarch and corn syrup. For the most part, it's not what you eat off the cob.

Obesity is just the latest problem biotech businesses are trying to combat. Over the years, the industry has advertised answers to a panoply of problems, including global warming, iron deficiencies in children, air pollution from farming and heart disease.

Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute, has watched the industry for years. She views its promises with skepticism.

"I believe that they're coming out there to sell you on the fact that biotechnology offers great promise for obesity because that's the flavor of the month," she said by telephone from her office in Washington, D.C. "Last year, it was hunger, and this year it's obesity, and next year it will be something else."

About the Writer The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or Staff writer Mike Lee contributed to this report.