Future Tense

No One Should be Afraid of Synthetic Biology-Produced Vanilla

Go ahead, dig in.

Photo by 3523studio/Shutterstock

For as long as 6,000 years, humans have benefitted from the tiny food- and fuel-producing powerhouse known as yeast. Yeast naturally takes carbon-based molecules (sugar) and configures the atoms into other useful molecules. Early humans figured out long ago how to use yeast to make beer, wine, and bread. In 2009, modern humans figured out how to use biochemistry to get yeast to use raw carbon-based ingredients to build anything from long carbon chains (useful for automobile fuel) to circular carbon-based molecules like vanillin.

The latter innovation has recently come under fire. This year, a company that creates vanillin with synthetic biology—a discipline that uses biochemistry to design DNA that controls balanced, interconnected behaviors in living cells such as yeast—has stepped up the marketing of its product. In response, the organization Friends of the Earth and its allies launched the “Campaign for Natural Vanilla” and sent letters to ice cream companies asking them to commit to not using synbio vanilla—and several agreed. Häagen-Dazs, Three Twins Ice Cream, Straus Family Creamery, and Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss (which produces dairy- and soy-free frozen treats) confirmed in late August that they will not use vanilla produced by synthetic biology.

This isn’t exactly a straightforward victory for FOE, given that it’s not clear whether any of these companies were actively exploring the idea of using vanilla from synthetic biology. “Häagen-Dazs today only uses pure vanilla extract from Madagascar and it is an ingredient our consumers expect, so we have no reason to consider using any alternatives,” Diane McIntyre, a spokeswoman for Nestlé USA, which owns Häagen-Dazs, told me in an email.

But in a press release, FOE food and technology campaigner Dana Perls celebrated, writing, “It’s wonderful that Häagen Dazs has confirmed that it won’t use vanilla produced using synthetic biology, since ingredients derived from synthetic biology are not natural.” But there is nothing wonderful about this reasoning. There is no scientific or health-related reason why companies shouldn’t use synbio-produced vanillin (or yeast vanillin, as I prefer to think of it)—this is just another example of attempts to demonize synthetic biology and GMOs.

Perls focuses on the idea that “ingredients derived from synthetic biology are not natural.” But ingredients that are artificially extracted from plants that are artificially selected for desired traits to produce certain things are natural? The battle over the term “natural” is steeped in hypocrisy and ambiguity.  

Perls also writes, “Like ‘traditional’ GMOs, synthetic biology ingredients are entering food and consumer products in absence of adequate health and environmental safety assessment, regulations or labeling.” This statement is particularly interesting because it suggests that new procedures are required to assess the safety of yeast vanillin. Well, why not, especially when synthetic biology, according to Perls and others is so “extreme,” right? But this does not stand up to logic.

Vanilla orchids (the source of the so-called “natural” vanilla) and engineered yeast both produce vanillin, also known as 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde (C8H8O3). Chemical analysis of vanillin from yeast reveals no additional atoms, no alien side groups attached, and no tiny molecular boogie men that are prepared to pounce and kill the unsuspecting consumer.

Then there is the general argument that yeast vanillin, specifically, has not been on the market for very long, therefore we must not know if it is safe enough for human consumption. What if there is a molecular boogie man and we haven’t discovered it yet? It is hard to beat an argument based on something that hasn’t happened, but as intelligent human beings it is extremely important to understand that uncertainty cannot be used to prove that something is certainly unsafe. Uncertainty can only be resolved with logic, reason, and research, not moratoriums and bans.

Finally, Perls asserts that synthetic biology is threatening the livelihoods of vanilla bean farmers. However, according to a 2003 study, less than 1 percent of vanillin sold annually originates from vanilla seed pods. Most of the remainder (the common vanilla flavoring we find on store shelves) is chemically synthesized from lignin or fossil hydrocarbons.* Evolva, the leading producer of synthetic biology yeast-vanillin, states that its product is “an alternative to existing synthetic vanillin products.” Wouldn’t the defeat of Evolva’s vanillin would be a victory for chemically synthesized vanillin, rather than for vanilla farmers? (McIntyre tells me that Häagen-Dazs, for one, is part of that less than 1 percent that uses vanilla from seed pods.)

But perhaps the most important point: There are some negatives that are associated with “naturally” farmed vanillin—namely, the pesticides that are allowed in certified organic food farming, the fertilizer run-off problems for the environment, and obesity in America. So perhaps the best thing anyone can do for the Earth and for their own health is to stop eating vanilla ice cream altogether.

*Correction, Sept. 4, 2014: This blog post originally and incorrectly referred to “vanilla extract” commonly found on store shelves. Vanilla extract is by definition from vanilla pods. Vanilla flavoring, not extract, commonly found on store shelves is made from chemically synthesized vanillin.