The Brave New World of Flavor BioEngineering
Like many San Diego-based companies, Senomyx is a high tech research and development business. Using cutting edge biotechnology and up-to-the-minute genetic engineering expertise, they have achieved an 85 percent increase in profits from 2009 to 2010. Surprisingly, this ten-year-old, publicly traded company is not associated with the computer or defense industry. Their techniques are more closely related to the pharmaceutical industry. This makes sense when you realize that the majority of their corporate executives came from Pfizer, Novartis and Merck. Their advisory board is populated by neurobiologists, neuropharmacologists and one Nobel prize-winning chemist.
So why am I, a food and health blogger, writing about Senomyx? They are not part of Big Pharma; they are a new player in the big food processing game. According to a company spokesperson, Senomyx is “dedicated to finding new flavors to reduce sugars and reduce salt. Our focus is to help consumers with diabetes or high blood pressure have a better quality of life.”
Reducing sugars and salt by reducing processed foods can be a good thing. I am constantly advising people to trade in their packaged processed foods for whole, organic fruits and vegetables and grass-pastured meats, dairy and eggs. This single act automatically improves our quality of life. But you have probably guessed that this ostensibly noble goal is not at all what Senomyx has in mind. Organic broccoli and freerange pastured chickens do not require marketing by company spokespeople or a highly paid R&D staff.
Senomyx uses its skilled workforce to develop patented flavor enhancers by using “proprietary taste receptor-based assay systems.” These testing systems provide scientists with biochemical responses and electronic readouts when a flavor ingredient interacts with their patented receptor. This permits the Senomyx researchers to know whether or not their flavor enhancer is effective or tasty. This also enables them to analyze “millions of potential flavor ingredients annually.” It is their unique receptor-based testing system that allows testing of such an enormous volume of chemicals. Using conventional flavor discovery methods, such as paying human subjects to taste test products, would take far more time and still not achieve the high number of results for “potential new flavor ingredients.”
DUBIOUS TASTE TEST SYSTEMS
You may ask, “Just what are ‘proprietary taste receptor-based assay systems’ anyway?” A press release from the religious watchdog group, Children of God for Life (http://www.cogforlife.org/senomyxalert.htm) discloses the fact that the receptors are made from HEK293.
HEK stands for Human Embryonic Kidney cells, 293 denoting that the HEK was from the 293rd experiment. The controversy comes from the fact that HEK293 originally came from a healthy, electively aborted baby whose cells were then harvested and used by a Dutch scientist, Dr. Van der Eb, in the 1970s. The Dutch doctor cloned the cells, grew them in tissue cultures and began using them and later selling them for research. The offspring of these cells became widely used in the medical biotechnology industry to produce therapeutic proteins and viruses.
Nowadays the HEK293 cells are becoming more widely used outside of medical research. They have found their way into the patented methods used by Senomyx to identify its new tastes. While their use in Senomyx’s lab is basically as a “test tube with a membrane” (Wikipedia) the violent and morally suspicious beginning of these cells make them questionable tools for a food processing company. COG claims there are viable alternatives to using HEK293 from less controversial sources. This is true since another San Diego-based company, Allylix, uses genetically modified baker’s yeast in similar production processes.
THE FIVE FLAVORS
There are five separate Discovery & Development programs in various stages of completion at Senomyx: Savory Flavors, Sweet Taste, Salt Taste, Cooling Flavors and Bitter Blockers. The end goal of each program is to patent, receive GRAS status and obtain exclusive partnership licensing agreements with international food processing companies to use these flavor enhancers in their products.
Senomyx has given the designation of SNMX-29 to the protein they believe is the primary human salt taste receptor. This may become the one that goes on to receive the patent for their Salt Taste Program. To get to this point they had to analyze about fifteen thousand proteins. The next step, now in progress, involves sifting through the company’s enormous flavor enhancing library to pinpoint which one stimulates SNMX-29 precisely the way sodium chloride does. Once this is achieved all that is left is for some company to buy the rights to insert that perfect salt enhancer into a food, replacing the need for much of the sodium currently used.
According to CEO Kent Snyder, they are working on this salt enhancement program because salt reduction is such a high priority for food companies and the medical community “due to the association of high salt intake with cardiovascular disease.” He further says, “We therefore believe that an effective salt taste enhancer would be a valuable asset for Senomyx partners and potential new collaborators.” Apparently Mr. Snyder is right; many food and beverage manufacturers and major retailers such as Wal-Mart have stated their intentions to offer lower salt products to their customers.
Senomyx has already successfully developed and patented several other flavor enhancers. These are “savory flavor ingredients” and “sweet flavor ingredients” including a “sucralose enhancer.” Their savory flavors were tested against monosodium glutamate (MSG), and inosine monophosphate (IMP), an expensive MSG enhancer. MSG and IMP are the gold standard in savory-umami food additives. The sweet flavors are compared to various carbohydrate-based sugars and to artificial sweeteners. Work is currently on-going with prototype “cooling” flavor products and a bitter blocker. The bitter blockers are being developed to use as additives in soy foods, which are naturally too bitter for most people to eat.
Senomyx’s salt taste, savory flavor, and sweet flavors—as well as all their other flavor enhancers—are purposefully developed so that they stimulate your taste buds without them actually tasting anything. This subterfuge fools your brain into thinking you have tasted an intensely sweet or savory (umami) flavor. Much like MSG, these flavor enhancers operate on the neurological level to produce these reactions. They bypass normal tasting processes and, because of their ability to react directly with the brain’s receptors, send signals directly to the location in your brain where specific flavors are registered. By themselves they don’t really have a flavor but when combined with the other sweet or savory ingredients they intensify your perception of those tastes. Since they are not actually ingredients but rather “enhancers” they are not required to be listed in a package’s ingredients except as “artificial flavors.”
HASTY, INCOMPLETE SAFETY TESTING
According to a New York Times article, because very small amounts of the additives are used (reportedly less than one part per million) Senomyx’s chemicals have not undergone the FDA’s usual safety approval process for food additives. Senomyx’s MSG-enhancer gained the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status from the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA), an industry-funded organization, in less than eighteen months, which included three months of tests on rats. Senomyx maintains that their products are safe to eat simply because they are used in such tiny quantities.
Now that their “savory flavor ingredient” has passed and received FEMA GRAS status, it is already in products on the market. As of 2008, Senomyx has also marketed two “sweet enhancers,” S2383 and S6973. The former allows for a 75 percent reduction of sucralose and the latter allows for a 50 percent reduction of table sugar while maintaining the desired sweet taste. S2383 has been patented through the year 2027. Both the sucralose enhancer and the table sugar enhancer have received GRAS status. Most recently two of the Bitter Blockers have received GRAS status. One of them, S6821, is destined for use in foods that include soy and whey proteins, menthol, caffeine, cocoa and stevia.
Many consumers simply assume that food processing companies develop and source their own flavors. While this is true in some cases, most large companies outsource their flavors. The global flavor business is worth more than six billion dollars per year. Growing consumer markets in China, India, and South America are driving the demand for economical flavors and fragrances. Consumers in the U.S. and Europe are demanding products that don’t harm the environment or deplete endangered resources. Government-driven health concerns are pressuring food companies to reduce the use of ingredients thought to contribute to obesity, heart disease and other illnesses.
After reading all of this you probably wonder why this is important to know. As a real food advocate who religiously reads labels and eschews anything with “artificial” in the ingredient list you may think this doesn’t affect you. Unfortunately, you are wrong.
Chances are very great that you have purchased at least one of the brands or affiliated product lines associated with a major, worldwide food processing company (see sidebar, page 42). Even if you don’t buy processed foods it is nearly impossible for our children to escape them as they are constantly offered at school, Bible class, sporting events and parties. And did you notice there were stevia enhancers? How many of you use products sweetened with stevia?
Why would these companies be so eager to sign on with Senomyx? This quote from the Senomyx website may offer an explanation: “We believe that our novel flavors, flavor enhancers, and bitter blockers will enable our collaborators to achieve a competitive advantage and/or improve the nutritional profile of their products while maintaining or enhancing taste.”
What a marketing coup it would be for a food manufacturer to be able to reduce the sugar in its best-selling cookie by 50 percent without sacrificing the sweetness. The maker could virtuously emblazon “HALF THE SUGAR!” on the cookie label and work up a clever marketing plan to outsell other cookie competitors, corner the market, and rake in all that cookie profit. All the while the maker could slash sugar costs by half to manufacture these high-tech sweets, thereby enjoying an even larger profit margin.
Or, a food manufacturer might use the savory enhancer to greatly reduce the amount of MSG needed in its noodle soup. “We’re helping companies clean up their labels,” said Senomyx’s chief executive, Kent Snyder, in a 2005 interview with the New York Times. That means the noodle company might now put health claims on its label boasting its new status of MSG-free! Health-conscious shoppers will purchase this soup—it could even be sold in health food markets—and the maker will gain a larger share of the packaged soup market, all the while increasing its revenues by no longer having to buy all of those formerly pricey ingredients.
You see, it’s all about the bottom line: decreased cost of goods equals increased profits for shareholders. It’s intricately tied to those shareholders, stocks, and hundreds of millions of dollars of investment potential. Processed and packaged foods represent an enormous industry that includes blue-chip companies like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola. These companies don’t really sell foods, of course; they market commodities. Their products aren’t produced with human nourishment in mind. The manufacturers’ number one goal is profit.
For me, however, it is all about trust.
The advertising budget for Nestlé was nearly four billion dollars in 2001, Kraft’s was just over one billion dollars last year, and PepsiCo spent over one billion dollars in 1999 (wonder what it is today?). Since these companies spend amounts equal to the GDP of a small nation on their advertising alone, they can’t afford to waste money on unnecessary manufacturing ingredients. New technologies that allow them to slash production costs mean more money for stockholders and larger advertising campaigns.
In March my sister sent out a notice to her blog subscribers in order to share the press release from the Children of God for Life condemning the Senomyx use of HEK293. After reading the press release, one mom telephoned Nestlé to ask about their affiliation with Senomyx and the use of HEK293. The Nestlé spokesperson said, “We only use FDA-approved ingredients.” In fact he really didn’t know much of anything about Senomyx. But as you read above, the FDA didn’t run the approval—it was done by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association.
Consider this quote from the FEMA website: “The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association furthers the business interests of its members through a sound scientific program designed to promote the safe use of flavors. Through effective representation of its members, FEMA fosters a global environment in which the flavor industry can create, innovate and compete.” They further the business interests of their members.
Dr. Mercola wrote an eye-opening article about processed foods (http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/03/31/foods-with-scary-surprises.aspx) in which he shared the FDA acceptable levels of, among other things, rat dung and maggots, allowed in processed foods before any regulatory action is taken. His point was that processed foods are not fresh (they sit around in warehouses for long, long periods of time) and that package labels will deceive you. The FDA checks to see whether nutrition information is present on the label, but not whether it is accurate.
Those of us who spend great amounts of time, effort and money to seek out real food, local food, nutrient-dense food with integrity, are all too aware that processed foods are not healthy. But what about the rest of the general public? They need to know the truth behind the billion dollar advertising budgets! There is no amount of flavor enhancement that can truly give us a higher quality of life, especially if we already have diabetes, high blood pressure, or another aspect of metabolic syndrome. There is no processed food “imagined” by R&D departments that will improve our health. Processed foods are marketed by profitable firms, highly paid to promote deception. They hope we focus on grand claims of reduced sugar, reduced salt, reduced MSG and forget to wonder about “artificial flavor” in the fine print on the back label. They hope we are impressed with their magnificent assay systems while they disregard our anger when we discover the offensive origins of their technology. They hope we focus on the perception of enhanced flavor and neglect to realize that in fact the flavor isn’t even there—the “Emperor’s new clothes” of the food processing industry.
Corporations Currently Partnered with Senomyx
• Ajinomoto Group has the longest relationship with Senomyx. They have been using the Savory Flavors in China for several years. They have now begun using enhanced products in sales in North America. Apart from the Senomyx flavors, Ajinomoto also proudly claims to be the world leader in food transglutaminase, a substance that alters proteins to allow unrelated meats to be seamlessly “glued” together, or to improve the general texture of any protein-rich food. They also claim to contribute to global health, and yet they are one of the largest producers and users of MSG in the world.
• Cadbury/Kraft is the parent company to far too many brand families to list separately. They are looking for ways to use several flavors, including sweet and cooling, in their candies and confectionaries. Outside sources say that Kraft may be planning to use Senomyx’s sweet flavoring to reduce the sugar in powdered beverages like Kool-Aid.
• Campbell’s Soup is still listed on the Senomyx website, yet recent news reports claim Campbell’s has since disaffiliated when the two companies were unable to come to an agreement.
• Firmenich (a Swiss perfume and flavoring company) is working with Senomyx to use a sweet enhancer in products that are currently sweetened with sucrose, fructose and stevia. They are currently building market interest for North American sales using S2383. A search on the Firmenich website yielded this gem of a quote: “Extracted from nature or imagined by our scientists, our ingredients bring new emotions, tastes and originality to every creation.”
• Solae makes soy-based foods including protein bars and infant formula, and stands to benefit from the Bitter Blocker program.
• Nestlé, the largest worldwide food processing company, has reformulated many of their old products and also developed new ones using the Savory Flavors S336 and S807. They market coffee drinks and coffee creamers that utilize Senomyx-technology enhancers. They are also pushing the European Food Safety Authority to grant approval to use these ingredients in the European Union, creating a new market for themselves.
• PepsiCo (which also includes the Frito-Lay, Tropicana, Quaker and Gatorade brands) recently signed a four-year contract with Senomyx that included a thirty-million dollar up front payment from Pepsi to Senomyx to use their sweet enhancers.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2011.