In the hopes of helping to solve the rampant vitamin A deficiency in East Africa, professor James Dale of the Queensland University of Technology is working to make bananas more rich in nutrients, essentially creating a superfood. Though Dale has been working on the project for some time, his research has been sprung forward by a recently awarded $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The project has been nearly a decade in the making, beginning in 2005, but has yet to undergo a human trial. Though genetically modified food comes with somewhat of an onus due to an increasingly present focus on organic products, Dale’s research has taken a staple food of Uganda and the surrounding area and made it naturally more nutritious.
The banana project
While Vitamin A deficiency is not a common problem in the United States, it remains a significant health concern in developing countries. Professor Dale’s research states that, globally, approximately 700,000 children die each year from vitamin A deficiency, and an additional 300,000 are rendered blind.1 Vitamin A deficiency is also linked to a poor immune system and brain damage. Dale hopes that vitamin-enriched bananas will be widely available by 2020, potentially putting millions of people in better health.2
The super-banana will undergo human testing in the United States over several weeks. Current field tests being done in Queensland, Australia have led to hundreds of banana permutations, of which some are incredibly rich in vitamin A. Dale intends to take the most successful genes to Uganda and create elite banana plants over the next several years.3 Dale’s results to date have made him confident the science will prove effective in Uganda.
The bananas are enriched with vitamin A by being injected with alpha and beta carotene, giving the bananas a dark orange color similar to a carrot or pumpkin.4 However, the banana’s peel retains its recognizable bright yellow sheen. Though other produce such as carrots are already rich in vitamin A, such vegetables are not native to the region, and the costs of importing them are restrictively high for developing nations.5 Growing non-native produce would also be a challenge, as it is not suited to the soil and climate of the region. However, Local crops, such as Ugandan bananas, are a staple of regional cuisine. Thus, altering the banana crops to be richer in vitamin A caters to the local diet while also providing a consistent source of nutrition.
Genetically modified food
Genetically modified organisms, commonly shortened to GMOs, are foods that have been genetically altered to increase their health benefits, flavor or shelf life.6 Currently, foods are not required to list if they are genetically modified on their labels, but legislation in states such as Vermont could soon change this practice.7 According to Reuters, over 60 countries worldwide already require genetically modified foods to be labeled as such.8 The reason for this concern is that GMOs are believed to pose potential health threats, and to-date, few if any have been shown to provide any real health benefits.9 With increasing advocacy from chefs, food workers and the general public, labeling GMOs will likely be up for a vote in many states in the upcoming years.
Interestingly enough, foods exposed to pesticides and other potentially harmful byproducts are not currently subject to labeling either. For scientists and health care professionals, this complicates the matter of advising consumers when it comes to GMOs. The research of scientists such as James Dale clearly is targeting a problem and trying to increase the quality of our food. Research such as Dale’s could be important to pharmacy tech colleges, making it possible that fruits and other foods could someday be used as vitamin supplements or as a means of correcting nutritional imbalances. On the opposite end, the food industry is trying to modify foods to increase profit margins. Finding ways to prevent widespread malnutrition both in developing and developed countries is an important issue facing health care professionals as the population continues to rise.
1“Super bananas – world first human trial” Queensland University of Technology. June 16, 2014. http://www.news.qut.edu.au/cgi-bin/WebObjects/News.woa/wa/goNewsPage?newsEventID=74075
2“Super bananas – world first human trial” Queensland University of Technology. June 16, 2014. http://www.news.qut.edu.au/cgi-bin/WebObjects/News.woa/wa/goNewsPage?newsEventID=74075
3“Super bananas – world first human trial” Queensland University of Technology. June 16, 2014. http://www.news.qut.edu.au/cgi-bin/WebObjects/News.woa/wa/goNewsPage?newsEventID=74075
4“Genetically engineered super-banana could save millions of lives” by Ryan Whitwam. Extreme Tech. June 16, 2014. http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/184435-genetically-engineered-super-banana-could-save-millions-of-lives
5“Genetically engineered super-banana could save millions of lives” by Ryan Whitwam. Extreme Tech. June 16, 2014. http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/184435-genetically-engineered-super-banana-could-save-millions-of-lives
6“GMO 2.0: genetically modified foods with added health benefits” by Marc Gunther. The Guardian. June 10, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/jun/10/genetically-modified-foods-health-benefits-soybean-potatoes
8“California lawmakers reject bill requiring labeling on GMO foods” by Jennifer Chaussee. Reuters. May 29, 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/29/us-usa-california-gmo-idUSKBN0E908E20140529?feedType=RSS&feedName=domesticNew
9GMO 2.0: genetically modified foods with added health benefits” by Marc Gunther. The Guardian. June 10, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/jun/10/genetically-modified-foods-health-benefits-soybean-potatoes