Why 'Frankenfood' Is Our Friend

January 01, 2000  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Forbes Magazine  ·  Biotech

Where’s that talking chihuahua when you need him?

"I bite biotech bashers!"

There was no one to calm, much less charm, consumers when genetically altered corn approved for animals snuck into Taco Bell taco shells. The fear that StarLink corn would cause us humans terrible allergic reactions led to a major recall. So large grocery chains like Safeway, Kroger, Albertson’s and Food Lion made their corn products disappear.

But was it a tempest in a taco shell?

Unlike the rest of the biotech corn that blankets America’s heartland, the added gene in StarLink emits a protein not rapidly digested in the human gut. A protein that does rapidly break down has little chance of causing harm even if it is an allergen. Speed of digestion is only important because a protein that breaks down slowly could cause harm if it’s an allergen. But the StarLink sequence of amino acids, the main component of proteins, resembles no known allergens, so it almost certainly isn’t one.

This is not to diminish the very real danger of allergies. Each year in the U.S., food allergies cause 2,500 emergency room visits and 135 deaths. But biotechnology can actually be used to make allergenic foods nonallergenic, or less allergenic, by "switching off" certain genes or by other means.

This isn’t theory. "There are several approaches," says Roy Fuchs, director of regulatory science at Monsanto Co. "There’s work on rice and on peanuts and soybeans using antisense — turning off the gene that emits the protein — that can reduce but probably not eliminate the source of allergenicity."

Scientists are trying to remove allergy-producing proteins from foods without changing the texture and flavor. Fuchs cites ongoing experiments to disable the offensive gene in potatoes without making fundamental changes. If it still rolls like a spud and tastes like a spud — it’s a spud.

Bioengineering is also tackling food intolerances, which can cause very nasty illnesses. The protein gluten — found in wheat, rye and barley — causes celiac disease, associated with chronic diarrhea. It strikes as many as 1 in 250 Americans and Europeans, wreaking havoc in their intestines. But British researchers are working on a process to leave intact most of the gluten while removing the small portion that causes the illness.

Lactose intolerance affects about 90% of Asians, 75% of all blacks and many whites who lack the enzyme lactase, which breaks down the lactose protein in milk. A French medical team is trying to fix the problem by injecting cows with a gene to make their own lactase that would be expressed in their milk — and passed on to people.

If that little dog were still here, he’d be yelping, "Yo quiero Frankenfood!"