With the dispute of genetically-modified foods becoming a more global issue, editor-in-chief Lauren R. Hartman advises consumers to remain vigilant and read package labels because you never know who to trust.

Ahh, the New Year, which signals new beginnings and new developments cropping up throughout the bakery and snack food markets. But some of these developments sound like they’re straight out of Mary Shelley novels. We’ve heard of so-called Frankenfood, or genetically-modified foods, and they bring with them much controversy-a dispute over the relative advantages and disadvantages of genetically-modified (GM) food crops and other uses of genetically-modified organisms (GMO) in food production involving biotechnology companies, governmental regulators, non-governmental organizations and scientists. The dispute is most intense in Japan and Europe, where public concern about GM food is higher than in other parts of the world. In the United States, GM crops are more widely grown, and the introduction of these products has been less controversial. Still, some believe that our food supply is being redesigned more quickly than any of us realize, and that scientists have hardly begun to test the long-term safety of these new foods.

According to Wikipedia, there are five key areas of political controversy related to genetically-engineered food: food safety; the effect on natural ecosystems; gene flow into non-genetically-engineered crops; moral/religious concerns; and corporate control of the food supply (not to mention the food allergy issue). But so far, not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment has been documented with GM crops. Instead, several benefits have been widely accepted and are uncontested in scientific literature.

This year, we’re seeing synthetically-made chocolate, as DNA discoveries and studies by a French research agency indicate that they have unlocked the genetic code of chocolate. The findings may just lead to the bioengineering of some wonderful chocolate, and with chocolate prices soaring, this could be great news.

There is also a process created by scientists to produce palatable gluten-free bread (see our Jan. 5 edition ofOperations Weekly,Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery's weekly e-newsletter, for more details on both the bread and the chocolate stories). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Washington, reports that scientists at its Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Grain Quality and Structure Research unit in Manhattan, Kan., created a process to produce high-quality, gluten-free bread, which would be incredibly beneficial for numerous consumers who are unable to digest gluten, a protein found in flour from grains, such as wheat, barley and rye (check out the Ingredient Technology article in this month’s issue for more on whole grains).

There are also developments of physically-optimized flours. With the clean label trend in food formulations across Europe, it’s a conundrum that commodities such as flour are being physically modified and heat-treated and seem to be gaining ground on modified starch solutions. A report posted on foodnavigator.com notes that Michael Gusko, managing director of leading German milling group Kampffmeyer Food Innovation, says there is clear demand in the convenience and bakery sectors for these types of products, where advantages include clean label appeal and good pH shear stability, which “simple, commodity flours” cannot match.

Yet with the non-GMO movement in high gear, it will be interesting to see if these GM products take hold. Greenpeace warned the public that GM wheat could soon be widely grown in Australia for use in staples, such as bread and cereals. The group was demanding that GM wheat trials be stopped, claiming that such foods are unsafe and the wheat industry is being taken over by pro-GM interests. Genetically-modified wheat isn’t currently grown for human consumption in Australia, but GM cotton and canola is.

So what can we believe or trust? The jury is still out as to how GMOs will affect us humans, but how can we avoid them and should we? Some are being developed to help, not hurt us. We must continue to be vigilant and read package labels.