How gene-editing is about to deliver the promise of genuine superfoods
With the government recently approving the commercial development of gene-edited food in England, we could soon see tastier, nutritionally enhanced food appearing on our supermarket shelves.
‘Superfoods’ are often touted as being exceptionally beneficial for our health. But currently, the concept is mostly just marketing hype designed to sell us expensive and exotic fruits and vegetables rather than providing us with any actual benefits. However, with gene editing now approved by the government for use in commercial crops in England, this could be all about to change.
Gene-editing, using technologies like CRISPR/Cas9 or TALEN, is faster and cheaper than conventional breeding techniques and less controversial than genetically modified (GMO) foods. This is because, instead of inserting whole genes from outside of the plant, as is the case with GMOs, gene editing allows for small and targeted changes to subtly alter the genetic makeup of existing crops, potentially allowing us to create foods with different properties.
We all know that fruits, vegetables and whole grains are good for us. But most people don't eat the amount or variety recommended for good health. One of the ideas behind gene-edited crops is that nutrient levels could be boosted in certain fruits and vegetables, making it easier for us to eat a healthy, balanced diet.
In fact, lots of crops based on this idea have already been produced. One example is soybean and rapeseed that has been edited with one gene suppressed to produce a healthier fat profile, making their oils more like olive oil. Similarly, bananas and rice have been made to include extra vitamin A, and other crops have been enriched with vitamin E, iron and zinc using only tiny edits to the existing genes.
These nutrients have been identified as early targets because they are key deficiencies in many people’s diets. But clever editing could mean we need fewer servings of fruits and vegetables, so we wouldn’t have to stress as much about reaching our intake or variety targets. Imagine an apple that could provide all your daily vitamin and mineral needs, so that an apple a day really could keep the doctor away.
What’s more, gene-edited food sources could be superior to current nutrition-boosting methods such as supplements, meal replacements and fortified foods. Supplements contain high doses of vitamins but don’t contribute to satisfaction or fullness or come with the social aspects of eating. These features are also lost in manufactured complete nutrition solutions and diet shakes.
Similarly, fortification can add extra nutrients into everyday staples, like bread and margarine, that are palatable, practical and affordable. But these foods aren’t necessarily the most healthful choices to start with.
More like this
The concept of food as medicine has existed since ancient times and stems from studying not only the nutritional properties of foods but also their bioactive contents. Bioactives are natural compounds that aren't technically essential but can enhance health. These are found in particularly high amounts in plant foods. Examples include polyphenols, short-chain fatty acids, and sterols, which can have biological benefits in aiding inflammation, obesity, cardiovascular health, cognition and more.
Gene-editing could potentially open doors to designing whole foods that function as medicines, not just for better physical but for mental health too, all without the downsides of adding single functional components to foods that might not otherwise be healthy. At the same time, we could also edit out features of foods that might be causing harm.
Currently, tomatoes are one of the leading examples of gene-edited food. Researchers in Japan have used gene-editing has been used to enhance levels of GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), which may contribute to improved heart and mental health outcomes. At the same time, it has also been used to reduce the levels of oxalic acid naturally present in tomatoes.
High levels of oxalic acid can trigger flares in people with gout, a painful inflammatory condition. So the commercial availability of gene-editing could lead to ‘prescription foods’, combining food as medicine with personalised nutrition. Foods that may need to be avoided due to allergies or intolerances could also be edited so that they can be put back on the menu.
Unfortunately, the foods that are the best for us are often the ones that we find the least palatable, so making healthy foods tastier could help us to eat more of them. Gene-editing can be used to enhance sweetness, reduce bitterness, and dial up flavour and aroma. This could encourage people to eat more healthy plant-crop foods. There are already companies such as Pairwise, who are creating greens with less bitterness and fruits that pack even more flavour.
However, the complexity of the foods means that we can't just create new nutrient-dense foods and assume that higher contents translate into greater benefits. Nutrients, bioactives and other components in food all interact with each other. Some combinations boost the absorption and action of others, but in other cases, interactions lead to reduced uptake or function through binding or competition.
Another essential trick will be ensuring we don’t edit out healthful compounds, as negative attributes like bitterness often come from beneficial bioactive compounds. At the same time, we don’t want to edit in extra calories when we edit in sweetness or flavour. Likewise, adding nutrients and bioactives could have adverse impacts on taste, so a balance will need to be found.
The potential improvements for nutrition and health that gene editing offers are almost endless. But because food is so complex, we need to continue to do the research alongside each stage of development to ensure we don't make any false assumptions about benefits.
Read more about nutrition:
Dr Emma Beckett is a food and nutrition scientist and registered nutritionist who works as a senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle, Australia and Nutrition Research Australia. Her research has been published in journals including Nature Communications and the American Journal Of Human Biology