The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a next generation sweetener. Cargill in conjunction with the Swiss synthetic biology engineer developer, Evolva, will be marketing this new product. Despite Cargill’s promotional comparisons to stevia, EverSweet does not contain a single leaf of the Stevia plant. Cargill’s new sweetener offers a 100% reduction in sugar but is an example of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is a new term for a form of genetic engineering that uses modified organisms to manufacture compounds that would never be produced naturally. Stevia is not what makes EverSweet taste sweet (there is no actual stevia in the product). Real stevia gets its sweetness from glycosides called Rebaudioside D (Reb D) and Rebaudioside M (Reb M). These glycosides occur in very low levels in the actual stevia plant. Evolva creates these molecules synthetically by using a bioengineered yeast to produce them.
It is made in large fermentation vats. The genetically engineered yeast that is designed to produce the Reb D and Reb M molecules in abundance converts sugar (corn dextrose) in the tanks to the stevia molecules. The yeast is removed at the end of the process and the sweetener is purified and concentrated. This process eliminates the bitter taste often associated with stevia. Since these molecules are in such low amounts in the real plant, it would take huge amounts of land to raise enough stevia plants to harvest the desired molecules. Using GE was a way to make these molecules available commercially at a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately, GE can induce serious consequences that developers and regulators never test. The yeast creates the stevia molecules but is removed from the final product and thus is not required to be listed on the ingredient label. Officially this GE process is classified as a processing aid and not a food additive and technically can avoid European GE labeling laws.
Cargill is downplaying the genetic engineering aspect of Eversweet. Drawing attention to this controversial technology would not bode well for advertising. Instead, Cargill describes Eversweet as a “product of specially crafted baker’s yeast” which deceptively sounds like a trusted recipe from some centuries old Swiss village.
Fortunately, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the risks posed by synthetic biology, and companies are responding. Earlier this year, the Ben and Jerry’s promised not to use any ingredients produced through synthetic biology. In addition, Häagen-Dazs stated they will not use vanilla flavor produced through synthetic biology in its ice cream. Ecover makes a natural cleaning product. They were petitioned by angry consumers when they decided to produce their algal oil for their laundry detergent using synthetic biology. They quickly recapitulated. The Non-GMO Verification Project has stated that it is firmly against synthetic biology and views it as GMO. So, none of the 33,000 products carrying its seal can use synthetic biology. In addition, the European Stevia Association (EUSTAS), has made it clear that EverSweet will undermine stevia’s reputation as a safe and natural product so they are opposed to synthetic biology also.
There are more and more ways genetically engineered foods are entering our food supply without any labels and without any warning. We must remain vigilent, vocal and use our wallets to demand clean, non-GMO food and products. It is critical for our health and our children’s future.
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