You could call them bionic foods because they are touted as bigger, stronger, and faster. Yet most people don't even know what they are.
The scientific name is GMO, which stands for genetically modified organisms. They are a new generation of super-crops created by splicing characteristics from one species into the DNA of another.
Six European countries have banned GMOs, and there are lots of people who'd like to ban them in America.
Still, the U.S. government stands firmly behind them.
"GMOs are at the cutting edge of making food safer, more affordable, more abundant and giving more people choices," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., vice-chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, which strongly supports them.
GMOs are engineered to produce higher yields, contain more vitamins and minerals, and resist insects and plant diseases. Some can even grow in droughts, floods, and extreme temperatures where regular crops couldn't survive.
Billionaire businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates is investing in these crops to ease starvation in developing countries.
"We need to take full advantage of these emerging technologies to develop new crop varieties, and we need to make these seeds available to the small farmers who need them," he said.
In America, a whopping 85 percent of corn, soybeans, sugar beets and canola are grown from GMO seed. So far, the Food and Drug Administration has only approved this technology for crops.
But they may soon give the go-ahead for the first genetically modified animal: farm-raised salmon that grows to market size up to four times faster than other farm-raised salmon.
A Health Risk?
Genetically modified foods have been in our food supply for 15 years and most of us eat them every day. But critics of GMOs say it's time to reverse this trend.
In his book, "Seeds of Deception," author Jeffrey Smith highlights research that this food can increase allergic reactions, resistance to antibiotics, cause reproductive problems, and accelerate aging and immune system damage.
"Unfortunately, the biotech industry has been marching lock-step with the government and vice-versa for the past 20 years," he said. "And they refuse to look at the increasing evidence that GMOs are unsafe both for the health and the environment."
Those studies are refuted by other research, according to Sharon Bomen Lauritsen, who represents several biotechnology companies.
"The studies that have shown that biotechnology is safe have been done by preeminent scientists around the world," she said.
"The U.S. Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association -- all three government agencies that regulate these products -- have all reviewed the scientific facts related to these products, and they are completely safe," she said.
'Not God's Plan'
Joel Salatin is a successful, organic farmer featured in the movie, "Food, Inc." He rejects GMOs, saying they are not part of God's plan.
"That fundamentally violates the very pattern and order that God ordained in Genesis for creation and its sustainability," he said.
Other critics are worried about the disruption of the natural food chain, loss of biological diversity and cross-pollination, explained Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety.
"You've got a field full of genetically engineered alfalfa, and the bees move over from that field to the non-genetically modified field, or your organic field, and contaminate it," he said.
The FDA does not require food manufacturers to disclose whether they use genetically modified ingredients in their products.
They argue that labels indicating the presence of GMOs in a food might mislead consumers into thinking those foods are unsafe. The FDA says genetically engineered foods do not present greater safety concerns than their conventional counterparts.
How to Spot GMOs
So if it's not on the label, how do you know if you're buying a GMO food?
Most processed foods contain them. Those are the packaged foods you find in the middle of the grocery store. Typically, the raw fruits and vegetables on the perimeter of the store are GMO-free, as are organic food.
Some food manufacturers make it easy and label their foods GMO-free.
In the meantime, the debate continues. Some say GMOs are the best hope for the world's food shortage, while others say they are our worst nightmare.
Originally published April 18, 2011.