By Dr. Mercola
For several years anti-abortion advocates have been warning that a new technology for enhancing flavors such as sweetness and saltiness uses aborted fetal cells in the process.
The biotech company using this novel process, Senomyx, has signed contracts with Pepsi, Ajinomoto Co. (the maker of aspartame and meat glue), Nestlé and other food and beverage companies2 over the past several years.3
The primary goal for many of these processed food companies is to make foods and beverages tasty while reducing sugar and salt content.
While Senomyx refuses to disclose the details of the process, its patent applications indicate that part of the secret indeed involves the use of human kidney cells, known as HEK293, originating from an aborted baby.
It's worth noting that no kidney cells, or part thereof, are actually IN the finished product.4 Rather they're part of the process used to discern new flavors, which will be discussed below.
That said, to many, this is still "over the line." Two years ago, anti-abortion groups launched boycott campaigns against Pepsi Co., urging them to reconsider using flavorings derived from a process involving the use of aborted embryonic kidney cells.
Whatever your personal convictions might be on the issue of using biological material from an aborted fetus, the issue of whether or not biotech-constructed flavor enhancers are safe or not remains...
Biotech Cooks Up New Flavors
Senomyx5 is a high tech research and development business that is "dedicated to finding new flavors to reduce sugars and reduce salt." These include new flavors such as Savory Flavors and Cooling Flavors, as well as flavor modulators such as Bitter Blockers and enhancers of Sweet and Salt tastes.6
Senomyx is also engaged in a new effort to discover and develop high-potency sweeteners to replace high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and natural herb sweeteners like Stevia, which some people object to due to its aftertaste.
To accomplish this, Senomyx has developed patented "flavor enhancing" compounds using "proprietary taste receptor-based assay systems." It's a taste testing system that provides scientists with biochemical responses and electronic readouts when a flavor ingredient interacts with their patented receptor, letting researchers know whether or not they've "hit the mark" in terms of flavor. As described by Senomyx:7
"Flavors are substances that impart tastes or aromas... Individuals experience the sensation of taste when flavors in food and beverage products interact with taste receptors in the mouth. A taste receptor functions either by physically binding to a flavor ingredient in a process analogous to the way a key fits into a lock or by acting as a channel to allow ions to flow directly into a taste cell.
As a result of these interactions, signals are sent to the brain where a specific taste sensation is registered. There are currently five recognized primary senses of taste: umami, which is the savory taste of glutamate, sweet, salt, bitter and sour.
Senomyx has discovered or in-licensed many of the key receptors that mediate taste in humans. We created proprietary taste receptor-based assay systems that provide a biochemical or electronic readout when a flavor ingredient interacts with the receptor."
According to an article in The New Yorker8 published in May 2011, Pepsi's New York plant has a robot fitted with human taste buds to reliably "predict" what humans might like. To create this robotic taste tester, Pepsi Co. scientists injected the genetic sequences of the four known taste receptors into cultured cells, and then hardwired the cells to the robot's computer. The robot (which has replaced human taste testers for the initial taste trials) can sample some 40,000 flavor assays per day.
What are These Genetically Engineered 'Flavor Enhancers,' and are They Safe?
According to a CBS News report from June 2011, 70 out of 77 Senomyx patents9, 10 filed at that time referred to the use of HEK 293.11 These are human embryonic kidney cells originally harvested from a healthy, electively aborted fetus sometime in the 1970's. The "HEK" identifies the cells as kidney cells, and the "293" denotes that the cells came from the 293rd experiment.
These cells have been cloned for decades, as they offer a reliable way to produce new proteins using genetic engineering. Senomyx has engineered HEK293 cells to function like human taste receptor cells,12 presumably such as those used in Pepsi Co's taste-testing robot. This was done by isolating taste receptors found in certain cells, and adding them to the HEK cells.
HEK cells are also widely used within pharmaceutical and cell biology research for the same or similar reasons. It is however the first time HEK cells have been used in the food industry, which carries a certain "ick" factor for many. There's also the issue of just not knowing how these new flavors are created. As stated in another CBS news report:13
"So what exactly is this magic ingredient that will be appearing in a new version of Pepsi, and how is it made? Unfortunately, those questions are hard to answer. Senomyx... refers to them only as 'enhancers' or 'ingredients'... The products work by triggering receptors on the tongue and tricking your taste buds into sensing sweetness — or saltiness or coolness, in the case of the company's other programs...
So are Senomyx's covert ingredients safe? That, too, is anyone's guess... many of its enhancers have 'been granted' GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status, but all that means is that the company did its own assessment and then concluded everything was fine. We don't know whether Senomyx did any testing since the company isn't required to submit anything to the FDA.14
There's no reason to think that Senomyx's products will cause harm, but until or unless Pepsi decides to share details about how exactly it's achieving a 60 percent reduction in sugar while keeping the taste the same, customers will be drinking their 'scientifically advantaged' sodas completely in the dark."
The lack of labeling requirements is particularly troublesome and will probably become an issue in the future. Since these compounds (whatever they are) are used in such minute quantities, they don't have to be listed on the label. They'll simply fall under the generic category of artificial and/or natural flavors. What this means is that the product will appear to be much "healthier" than it might otherwise be, were a flavor enhancer not used.
According to a 2010 CBS report,15 Senomyx's flavor enhancers were already being sold outside the US at that time. For example, Nestle was by 2010 using an MSG flavor enhancer in its Maggi brand soups, sauces, condiments and instant noodles, and Ajinomoto was also using a similar ingredient in products for the Chinese market. This means less of the artificial sweetener is needed to create the same sweet taste as before, but while one could argue that this is a good thing, I suspect we will ultimately learn that this flavor enhancement method has multiple unforeseen adverse consequences — metabolically, and biologically.
Consequences of Food Alteration are More the Rule than the Exception...
There are many reasons why you're better off choosing natural whole foods in lieu of processed alternatives, but one of the primary ones is that junk foods contain additives that increase your toxic load, which in turn may increase your tendency to develop cancer. As of yet, there is NO medical research to back up the assertion that manipulating your taste buds in the way Senomyx' products do is safe and healthy in the long term. As an example, I would point to the evidence now available showing that one of the reasons why artificial sweeteners do not work as advertised is because the taste of sweet itself is tied into your metabolic functioning in a way that we still do not fully understand... As a result, artificially sweetened products, oftentimes boasting zero calories, actually result in greater weight gain than sweetened products when used "in the real world."
It's easy to forget that the processed, pre-packaged foods and fast food restaurants of today are actually a radical change in terms of the history of food production. Much of what we eat today bears very little resemblance of real food. Many products are loaded with non-nutritive fillers — purposely designed to just "take up space" to make you think you're getting more than you really are — along with any number of additives. Many additives have been shown to have harmful effects on mood, behavior, metabolic functioning and biochemistry.
Now, with the introduction of untested engineered flavor enhancers, you're left wondering whether processed foods with "cleaner" labels really are safer and healthier or not... Remember, because Senomyx' flavor enhancers are used in such low concentrations they are not required to undergo the FDA's usual safety approval process for food additives.
The disease trends we're now seeing are only going to get worse as much of the processed foods consumed today are not even food-based. Who knows what kind of genetic mutations and malfunctions we're creating for ourselves and future generations when a MAJORITY of our diet consists of highly processed and artificial foods that contain substances never before consumed by humans in all of history.
How to Enhance Your Food's Flavor, Naturally
When choosing what to eat, I highly recommend you focus your meals on real food, and remember "food" equals "live nutrients." Nutrients, in turn, feed your cells, optimize your health and sustain life. To help you along, I've created a free optimized nutrition plan, which takes you step-by-step from the beginner's through the advanced level.
When you eat real foods as opposed to "food products" like the ones being "enhanced" by Senomyx' technology, you don't need artificial, lab-created flavors or flavor enhancers, because real foods taste delicious. The fact that processed foods taste good is the culmination of a profitable science of artificial flavors, enhancers and additives, without which most processed food would taste and look like shredded cardboard.
Real food naturally has vibrant colors, rich textures, and is authentically flavorful. For times when you want to add even more oomph to your meals, nature has provided herbs and spices, which are not only incredibly tasty but also will make your real food even healthier.