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Fishing For the Truth about Genetically Modified Ice Cream
Use of a Genetically Modified Fish Antifreeze Protein is Being Debated Among Scientists from Britain and Canada
by Joanne C. Twaddell
The eel-like fish can survive low temperatures because of a naturally occurring ice-structuring protein. The protein from the blood of the fish can lower the temperature at which ice-crystals form, meaning that when used in ice cream, less cream or fat is needed, according to a BBC news release.
Unilever UK, an ice cream maker, says the artificial equivalent allows it “to produce products with more intense flavor delivery, a wider range of novel textures and more intricate shapes. The company also says it can improve the “healthiness” of ice cream by cutting its fat and sugar content. But the process also carries additional health risks due to the uncertainties associated with gene insertion.
“We want to be clear, despite the headlines, we do not consider the ice cream to be genetically modified,” states Trevor Gorin, media contact for Unilever UK. “There is no GM material in the finished product. To manufacture it, we use a process – quite common in the food and other industries – that uses modified yeast, but that’s all. Again, despite common misconception in the media, it has nothing to do with fish – and therefore doesn’t taste ‘fishy’!”
Unilever published extensive data with experts in the field of food safety and allergenicity, according to Sharyn Kolstad, media contact for Unilever U.S. The work covers all aspects of establishing the safety of proteins in the food supply and the information was provided to outside experts and regulatory agencies around the world.
“Upon successful completion of an extensive internal safety and allergenicity evaluation and thorough FDA review process, Unilever Ice Cream U.S. began using ice structuring protein in products in 2003 and continues to use the ingredient,” Kolstad says. “ISP is made by a common fermentation process. ISP is not genetically modified, and is nature identical.”
The protein, she explains, is removed from the yeast at the end of fermentation, adding that in years of production both here and abroad has shown that ice structuring protein is safe for use in frozen dessert products.
“The use of ISP has opened up new opportunities for innovation in a variety of ice cream and ice-based novelty products,’ Kolstad adds. “We have had products containing ice structuring protein in the U.S. market for three years without a single consumer issue arising.”
Unilever stresses that no genetically modified material is present in the final product, and the level of the ISP in the ice cream does not account for more than 0.01 percent of the weight.
“This is an exciting new technology that has potential benefits for ice cream, including the possibility of increased fruit content and lower fat content. The process itself is widely used within the food industry,” according to Unilever.
The British and Canadian scientists – Malcolm Hooper, emeritus professor of medical chemistry at Sunderland University, Joe Cummins, emeritus professor of genetics at the University of Western Ontario and geneticist Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, director of the Institute of Science in Society all say this risks “letting off an immunological time bomb.”
They submitted their findings to the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) recently on behalf of the Independent Science Panel, insisting that the protein is changed in the processing and could pose a danger. Unilever has applied to the FSA to be able to use the GM protein in edible ices sold in Britain including sorbets, water ice, fruit ice, frozen desserts, iced smoothes and ice cream.
“The transgenic protein appears to have the glycosylation pattern of yeast, making that protein a unique antigen,” Cummins, Ho and Hooper state in a press release. “Even though allergenicity was studied in a cursory way, there is a clear precedent for studying inflammation comprehensively in the long term in both young and older animals before exposing the European public to the transgenic ice cream.”
Cummins adds, “This is about as genetically modified a product as you can get.”
According to Jeffrey Smith, author of “Seeds of Deception,” although the ISP is an isolated protein and not a GM crop, it still carries some of the risks described by FDA scientists, who had acknowledged that genetic modification may create unpredicted, hard-to-detect side effects, including possible allergens, toxins, anti-nutrients and new diseases (in memos made public from a lawsuit).
“Since there are no special safety requirements mandated for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), however, the manufacturer has failed to adequately guard against the uncertainties. They, like other GMO producers, rely on unproven assumptions or inadequate testing protocols,” Smith adds.
The ISP produced by the yeast has the same 66 amino acid sequence as the natural form found in fish, Smith explains. “On that basis, Unilever says it’s the same. GMO regulators at the Food Standards Australia New Zealand even use the word ‘identical’,” he says. “Since the pout has been consumed by people in the past, they reason that the protein has a history of safe use.”
In spite of the matching sequence, he says proteins can differ in the way they are folded. Also, a wide array of molecular chains can attach themselves, depending on which cell or which species produces the protein. These differences, Smith says, can transform a benign protein into a harmful, even deadly version.
“There is no indication that Unilever’s research looked for changes in the folding patterns of their yeast-born ISP. They did discover, however, that a sugar chain has been added,” he says.
“Glycosylation (the attached sugar chain), carries the potential for producing allergic or immune system responses,” Smith says. “A protein produced in one species can have completely different glycosylation patterns when produced in another species. When a gene from a kidney bean, for example, was inserted into a pea plant, the protein had a very subtle difference in glycosylation.”
The two proteins, which were thought to be identical, had very different effects, he adds.
“The transgenic version from peas caused inflammation in mice,” Smith explains. “If the GM peas similarly caused inflammation or allergies in humans, it could be lethal. This surprise difference between the proteins forced developers to scrap their $2 million 10-year GM pea project in 2005.”
Unilever claims that since the glycosylation pattern is typical of yeast, and since yeast does not cause immunity problems in humans, the sugar pattern imposed on the fish protein would likewise be harmless.
This assumption may have some truth, but it is untested, Smith says. “Furthermore, the scientists point out that when yeast was used to create human pharmaceutical proteins, the glycosylation did cause problems related to immunity and enzyme functioning,” he says. “Scientists had to change (humanize) the yeast’s sugar patterns to solve the issue. No such effort has been made with ISP.”
According to The Independent, the scientists are also disputing the adequacy of Unilver’s safety checks, not least because it checked the protein against the blood of people allergic to cod, not the pout fish.
There are other skeptics of GM foods.
“The Soil Association is alarmed to hear that Unilever is trying to get approval to use a GM protein created from an eel for a new low-fat ice cream,” says Gundula Azeez, Soil Association policy manager, Bristol, UK. “We consider this a frivolous application of a dangerous and unwanted technology. Just because there won’t be any traces of the GM material in the ice cream, this does not mean that the product is safe. It should certainly not be marketed as a ‘healthier alternative’ simply on the grounds that it is low-fat.”
Research by the FSA over the last few years has confirmed that genetic engineering produces a range of unpredictable biological side-effects with the insertion of new genes, she adds.
“The health impacts of all these biochemical changes are not fully tested in each case, but it is believed they can cause the presence of new toxins or allergens in the final product, even if the original GM material is absent,” Azeez says. “We want to remind the food industry of the terrible consequences of the sale of the GM version of the L-tryptophan food supplement in 1989 in the USA.
She noted that although the GM version did not contain any GM material in the final product, it killed nearly 40 people and disabled over 1,500 others.
“It was found to contain a novel toxin that had not been identified or removed by the purification process,” Azeez says. “The U.S. government has not been able to discount genetic engineering as the cause. The company withdrew the product and paid over $2 billion in compensation to the victims.”
According to a recent story in The Independent, Ben & Jerry’s, the self-styled “all natural” ice cream manufacturer, has broken ranks with food giant Unilever amid controversy about GM ice cream.
“We would not dream of including anything like that in our products,” a spokesperson for Ben & Jerry’s says. “One of the biggest problems is that we are affected by Unilever’s actions even though they are nothing to do with the way that we behave. The fact that we are not using this GM ingredient shows that we are not following all of their decisions.”