GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FISH PROTEIN IN ICE CREAM: A GOOD IDEA?
David B. Fankhauser
28 August 2006
Some ice cream manufacturers are adding a fish “antifreeze” protein produced by a genetically engineered organism to their low fat ice cream to increase its smoothness. A gene, originating in the arctic Pout fish, codes for an “ice structuring” protein which causes smaller ice crystals to be foremed when freezing. The protein is the product of genetically modified yeast, in which DNA containing a gene from the fish, the Ocean Pout (Zoarces americanus) has been spliced into yeast using the tools of recombinant DNA technology. [Here is another image of the pout.] The yeast then generates the “ice structuring protein” which Unilever Corporation harvests and has been marketing to ice cream manufacturers. The antifreeze protein, when added to low fat ice cream, makes the crystals in the ice cream smaller, and therefore smoother. (Ice cream manufacturers like to use the word “creamier...”) Breyer’s, for instance, is apparently adding it to their Light Double Churned ice cream.
Is this a good idea? Might there be side effects? Might there be problems having a fish antifreeze in our ice cream? The short answer is “We do not know for sure.” There are theoretical dangers which we recognize, and for which we attempt to test. However, with a highly technological enterprise such as genetic modification of foods which introduce novel ingredients into our diet, there can be a serious problem of unintended consequences. There are many examples in our past.
How many times have we been offered artificial sweeteners only to find that they pose a danger to some people? Most recently aspartame, an artificial sweetener is dangerous to one segment of the population.
We were told that margarine, because it does not have cholesterol in it, was safer than butter. It has been half a century later that we begin to understand that margarine contains trans fatty acids, and is significantly more dangerous to your health than butter.
Tryptophan, a food supplement sold in health food stores, was manufactured in a genetically modified organism. Unfortunately, a contaminant in minuscule quantities caused irreversible brain damage in some people who consumed this tryptophan.
These unintended consequences make it prudent to go slow on introducing completely novel foods and genetically modified foods. Even if a given set of lab tests do not reveal dangers, it does not mean that the food is safe for all members of the population. It is crucial to be able to accurately monitor the consumption of the modified foods to detect unanticipated ill effects on consumers. This requires a transparency at every step, especially with the labeling of the food as containing genetically modified additives so as to ensure an informed consumer.
Unfortunately, manufacturers of genetically modified foods have steadfastly resisted the labeling of such foods which contain these novel foreign materials. (They state that people would not buy such a product... This is an amazing admission that they prefer a cloak of secrecy about additives to processed foods.) Lack of labeling makes it difficult at best to connect ill effects to the consumption of the modified foods.
We consumers are beginning to be suspicious of artificial foods. For some reason we have more faith in real foods. Maybe it is that we have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years so that our bodies can handle ingredients in natural foods for the most part. Our tastes tell us what natural foods are healthy. Not so with processed foods whose designer taste chemicals trick us into thinking the food is good for us. Food corporations are hard at work to make empty artificial foods taste like real foods. “Creamy” used to mean there was cream in ice cream. Now “creamy” is liable to mean that the “ice cream” has fish antifreeze protein in it...
This key issue is this. People should be able to make their personal choice about whether they want to eat foods with genetically modified additives or not. Yes–for many genetically modified foods, we do not yet have clear evidence that they are hazardous. But if the addition of genetically engineered additives is cloaked in secrecy, keeping consumers in the dark, how will we learn that a given unexpected malady is related to the additive? Caution requires that we have transparency in the additives to our food, and manufactures be truthful about what they add. “There is no evidence that these additives are dangerous” is a brand of “truthiness” which implies that they are safe when that has not been established.