Skip to main content

While we’ve all been worrying about GMO’s and whether or not they’re labeled, synthetic foods have been quietly creeping in the back door.  What the heck is synthetic food, you ask?  Synthetic foods are based on synthetic biology, which uses a “workhorse” organism to produce things more efficiently than nature (or to produce things that nature can’t make).  Take yeast, for example.  We’re already familiar with yeast’s ability to make alcohol out of sugar, but what else can these little beasties do?  A lot, apparently.  To make synthetic “foods”, genes from plants are given to yeast to make the same compound the plant makes but through fermentation.

The best example of synthetic food hitting the market now is vanilla.  Synbio vanillin was introduced this summer as an alternative for artificial vanilla flavoring, and while you won’t yet find it hanging out on grocery store shelves, it’s quietly making its way into foods, though International Flavors and Fragrances, the US partner of a Swiss company that invented the technology, isn’t saying just who’s using the synbio vanilla yet.  Next up: synbio saffron, resveratrol (an antioxidant found in chocolate and red wine) and stevia.

The positives given by makers of these synthetic ingredients are the relative ease and efficiency of production, as well as a couple of things they think should appeal to consumers and environmentalists.  Artificial vanilla flavoring is actually created using petrochemicals and paper mill waste, so it can’t be called “natural,” whereas synbio vanillin, on the other hand, takes its name from the compound in vanilla beans that creates its flavor  and is created through fermentation, and therefore can be labeled “natural.”  Hmmm.  Another perk: Some companies believe that synbio vanilla will be better for the environment because there is no farmland used to grow it.  Others argue about the amount of sugar that will need to be produced to feed the hungry yeast.  A potential rise in sugar cane farming, which has notoriously negative environmental effects, makes the question of the environmental perks associated with synthetic foods questionable.

As with GMO’s, there’s the question of labeling.  Right now, synthetic foods seem to be slipping through the loopholes surrounding the word “natural,” and not only are consumers unaware that these products may be in their foods, sometimes even the companies that buy the flavorings don’t know they are synbio.

There are so many questions surrounding the use of synthetic foods–labeling, health and environmental safety, etc–that going forward will more than likely be a tricky road to navigate (as are GMOs).  Other engineers are jumping on the synbio foods train already–new dairy products are in the works that wouldn’t even require cows–so we won’t be seeing the end of this conversation any time soon; in fact, the conversation is just beginning.

How much do you want to know about what’s in your food?  Do you think GMOs should be labeled? Synthetic foods?  And we’re curious: How many of you knew that artificial vanilla is made from petrochemicals?  Is cost a big enough factor to make you opt for GMOs and synthetic foods over conventionally created foods?  These are the questions we will have to ask and answer as this discussion goes forward.

To read more about this topic, take a look at this article on NPR’s The Salt.  We found it most helpful in beginning to understand this topic.