Sixty years ago, Popeye the Sailor Man introduced the concept (incorrect though it might have been) that spinach can get you ripped.
Pretty much ever since, food bioengineering advocates have foretold a future in which hearty crops can not only fend off pests, thrive in parched soil and ward off frost, but the super foods they produce can fight human disease.
Just last week in fact, we came to learn that genetically engineered tomatoes, rendered purple by an abundance of antioxidants, protected mice against cancer.
Similar research is underway to increase the nutritional value of staples such as rice, bananas and cassava, and to add healthy omega-3 fatty acids to vegetable oil. Food scientists are even trying to boost levels of the cancer-fighting antioxidant resveratrol in beer and wine.
Agricultural biotechnology has in fact had a huge positive impact on global crop yields by making plants more resistant to pests and weeds. The improvements have helped feed millions and represent one of the great scientific achievements since World War II.
But we’re a long way from the promised land when it comes to super foods and frankly, purple tomatoes won’t be on store shelves any time soon.
Minimally, years of testing in animals and humans lie ahead, and that’s assuming a company decides to assume the risk of developing, marketing and selling the freaky fruit. There’s not a lot of money available to support research in these areas, and there are technical difficulties and safety concerns associated with the multiple gene transfers required to produce the super foods.
Food expert Margaret Mellon, of the Union of Concerned Scientists is particularly unenthusiastic about super foods. “It doesn’t look exactly promising that we’ll get any of that kind of benefit anytime soon, if ever,” she recently told the Washington Post. “Genetically engineering fruits and vegetables for nutritional benefits has proven far more difficult than the industry expected.”