As a consumer, I do depend on the term “natural” to identify products I feel comfortable feeding my family. I do read labels. Even my kids read labels. I trust in ingredients I can pronounce and have heard of before. Vanilla, is obviously, one of those ingredients that gives me assurance over the synthetic, gluten containing vanillin.
Now, the FDA is poised to approve an “extreme” genetically engineered version of vanilla called Synbio that could be allowed in products labeled “natural”.
What is Synbio Vanilla?
Friends of the Earth (FOE) explains:
A new ingredient straight out of a petri dish is about to enter the global food supply in many of our favorite foods including ice cream. And like many of the products of genetic engineering, it won’t be labeled — instead it is being marketed as “natural”. But this ingredient is anything but “natural”.
This product, synbio vanilla, is made via an extreme form of genetic engineering called synthetic biology, and is on its way to market should the FDA approve it this next year. Synbio vanilla was designed to replace natural vanillin flavoring from vanilla beans, which are grown by small family farmers in rainforests across the globe. Instead, synbio is made in labs using synthetic DNA and reprogrammed, genetically engineered yeast. This new synbio vanilla doesn’t come from a plant at all but will be labeled as “natural” on product labels.
Similarly to genetic engineered products, synbio vanilla has been virtually untested, unregulated, and is anything but “natural” or “sustainable”.
I do disagree with FOE that vanillin is natural, considering it can be made from lignin, “a byproduct of paper pulp manufacture” and not sourced in a vanilla bean at all.
According to Wikipedia:
Natural “vanilla extract” is a mixture of several hundred different compounds in addition to vanillin. Artificial vanilla flavoring is a solution of pure vanillin, usually of synthetic origin. Because of the scarcity and expense of natural vanilla extract, there has long been interest in the synthetic preparation of its predominant component. The first commercial synthesis of vanillin began with the more readily available natural compound eugenol. Today, artificial vanillin is made either from guaiacol or from lignin, a constituent of wood, which is a byproduct of the pulp industry.
Natural vanilla is native to Mexico and is actually the pod of an orchid. It is the second most expensive spice (saffron is first) because it is so labor intensive to produce. Thus, Evolva, Synbio Vanilla’s producer, and the International Flavors and Fragrances is hoping the FDA labels this new product “Generally Regarded As Safe” requiring minimal testing and self-evaluation.
Can we trust Evolva to self-evaluate the safety of its extreme genetically engineered Synbio Vanilla?
Synbio Vanilla will be the “first major use of synthetic biology in our food”. It could be found in “natural” ice cream, cookies, cereals, soymilks, etc.
What is synthetic biology?
All living organisms contain an instruction set that determines what they look like and what they do. These instructions are encoded in the organisms’s DNA — long and complex strings of molecules embedded in every living cell. This is an organism’s genetic code (or “genome”).
Humans have been altering the genetic code of plants and animals for millennia, by selectively breeding individuals with desirable features…
More recent advances however, have enabled scientists to make new sequences of DNA from scratch. By combining these advances with the principles of modern engineering, scientists can now use computers and laboratory chemicals to design organisms that do new things—like produce biofuels or excrete the precursors of medical drugs. To many people, this is the essence of synthetic biology.
Below we have listed several of the more commonly referenced definitions:
“Synthetic biology is a) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems and b) the re-design of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes.”
If you are opposed to Synbio Vanilla, you can take action here.