Engineering better food ingredients

Researcher Todd Kuiken is promoting informed
policy-making for the emerging food products being produced by synthetic biology processes.

Todd Kuiken
Todd Kuiken

Walk down any baking aisle at the grocery store, and you’ll notice two types of vanilla on the shelf. The one with the higher price tag is vanilla extract, made from the seedpods of the vanilla orchid, which grows in the shade in tropical areas like Madagascar and Indonesia. The other “vanilla” is a much lower-priced flavoring made from a chemical compound called vanillin, using a chemical process with petroleum as the base.

Pioneering synthetic biology efforts, however, are leading to a third option that now allows food scientists more control over its flavor profile: the first “synbio” vanilla flavoring. Synbio vanillin, the primary chemical inside the vanilla bean that gives it its flavor, is produced with brewer’s yeast that has been genetically engineered to be able to make a chemical compound—in this case, vanillin. This process is also being used to produce synbio stevia (a sweetener), synbio saffron, and synbio resveratrol, a dietary supplement with antioxidant properties, says Todd Kuiken, a senior program associate with the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Synbio vanillin and synbio resveratrol have been on the market since 2014, while synbio saffron and stevia will likely be available next year, he says.

Unless we are eating directly from a local farmer, we don’t have a good understanding of what’s in our food.” —Todd Kuiken

And that’s just the start of a wave of new “synbio” food products, predicts Kuiken, whose program at the Wilson Center aims to inform public and policy discourse on synthetic biology. He envisions synbio increasingly being used to make food flavorings and key perfume ingredients that, like vanilla or saffron, are very high in value and difficult to grow or produce.

Synthetic biology uses tools like computers, DNA sequencing and chemicals to design organisms that do new things. The fermentation process that results in the new synbio vanillin, made by the Swiss company Evolva and sold almost exclusively as an ingredient to food companies, is just one method of synthetic biology; others more closely resemble breeding.

“Basically they [Evolva] are able to use yeast as the production factory,” says Kuiken, who adds that the synbio fermentation process is less energy intensive than using petro-chemical methods to make flavorings. Evolva also claims that this process allows the flavor profile of vanilla in foods to be controlled more precisely.

Stirring up trouble?

Research by the Wilson Center in 2013 and 2014 found that consumers generally have positive associations with synbio for medical applications, biofuels production and cleaning up the environment but they express concern over the creation of food additives.

Kuiken says he thinks there will be an initial backlash against synbio vanillin from some consumers because of the genetic engineering component used in the fermentation process. Friends of the Earth, for example, already has stated that it opposes synbio vanillin and has asked companies like Haagen-Dazs not to buy it. But clear labeling and better communications that explain all the chemical components of food ingredients, whether they’re produced from petro-chemicals or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or via synbio, could help educate consumers on the array of ingredients in their food, says Kuiken: “Let’s be honest. Most people have no idea what’s in their food, much less where flavorings come from, which are mostly from chemicals.”

Opponents contend that synbio vanillin could hurt vanilla farmers because the synbio vanillin could be used in place of vanilla extract, and that vanilla farming protects tropical rainforests from expansion by soy, palm oil and sugar cane producers.

Kuiken, however, says he doesn’t “understand how [synbio vanilla] impacts a natural vanilla farmer at all. But I certainly understand the anxiety of a vanilla farmer. I think this needs to be researched further to fully understand the impacts,” he adds. Evolva, meanwhile, has stated that its target is the artificial vanilla market, which accounts for 99 percent of the global vanilla flavoring market.

Natural reactions

The use of synthetic biology in food products also raises issues with using the word “natural” on product labeling, says Kuiken.

“The word ‘natural’ is completely diluted in product labeling. People see the word ‘natural’ and think, oh it came directly from a plant. But that’s not true,” he says. “For ‘natural,’ there’s no clear definition, and the vanilla flavoring made from the GM yeast-produced vanillin could potentially be called ‘natural’” because yeast fermentation is a natural process, he adds.

Unlike GMO corn or soybeans, where the whole plant is genetically modified, in this case the synbio product is produced using a genetically modified organism; the final product is an extract and not the modified organism. So far, government regulators have not addressed labeling for synbio foods.

Kuiken says he thinks the emerging synbio flavorings market ultimately will prompt change in the long-contested “natural” food-labeling category because unlike the “organic” label, which is subject to more government regulations, the “natural” label has become meaningless, he believes.

Engineering the future

As genetic engineering of flavorings becomes more common, Kuiken says researchers will need to analyze the socio-environmental cost-benefit of bio-produced vanillin from sugar cane feedstock vs. conventionally produced flavoring made from petroleum. Companies could claim that flavoring produced by synthetic biology is a “greener” process because it doesn’t use petroleum. Yet yeast requires sugar as the feedstock, and Kuiken wonders what environmental, social, economic and land use changes would result from the switch from petroleum to yeast.

On a personal level, the technology of synbio flavorings is what interests Kuiken the most, he says. “Someone has figured out how to get yeast to spit out a chemical. It is interesting to think about that age-old question, do we know what is in the foods we are eating? Does it have chemical preservatives? GMOs?” he adds. “Unless we are eating directly from a local farmer, we don’t have a good understanding of what’s in our food.”

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and writer based in Maryland. She reports on food, the environment and sustainable business for publications such as Slate, Scientific American, Nature, Yale e360, and The Guardian. She is a fellow for socio-environmental understanding at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center ( in Annapolis, Md.

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