Artificial vanilla—found in thousands of foods from flavored coffees to cereal—is made from petrochemicals and paper waste products. It's a little known fact, but one most of us accept. Real vanilla (the kind extracted from beans) is expensive, so the artificial flavoring is the price we're willing to pay for a cheap, tasty Pumpkin Spice Latte. But now, scientists have come up with a new alternative technique that blends the cheapness of lab-created products with a more natural process called synthetic bioengineering.
Synbio, as it's called, uses genetic engineering to program enzymes in yeast to make sugar into other plant products like vanilla, stevia, and even saffron. Yeast already does this same fermenting process on its own (you can thank it for that beer you had over the weekend), but now food scientists are harnessing fermentation to make foods that are typically extremely expensive because of how hard they are to get in their natural form. For instance, saffron is a delicious yellow spice used to add a mellow flavor to dishes like paella, and yet most people never use it because of the hefty price tag. At $2,700 a pound, it's the world's most expensive spice.
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Evolva, the Swiss company that invented the technology, says the biggest benefit of synbio is that it is all done in a lab which means that output isn't at the mercy of weather, labor, or insects and so is affordable and controlled. CEO Neil Goldsmith says the aim is to "make these expensive and scarce products more affordable and available"—music to the ears of any foodie on a budget. Even better? They say that because fermentation is a natural process, the final product can be called natural.
Critics take issue with that last point. While the synbio foods may taste similar to their inspiration, they're not the real dea—nor do they taste exactly like their namesakes. Genetically modified foods (GMOs) have caused a lot of controversy in recent years as people question what the risks are of altering the natural genetic makeup of plants. And synbio, according to Todd Kuiken, a senior program associate with the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is "the next stage of genetic engineering." While awareness is growing about GMO and some food companies are disclosing it on their labels, so far there is no such awareness of synbio. In fact, many companies who purchase the synbio foods don't know how they were produced, so they couldn't tell consumers even if they wanted to.
All we have to say is that if we have to go for a Lab Latte, yeast sounds a lot more appetizing than gasoline-laced wood pulp. Starbucks for lunch, anyone?