Published:
October 6, 2014
Last Updated:
March 4, 2021

Are Synthetically Modified Foods the New GMOs?

This Non-GMO Month, we’re thinking a lot about the genetically modified organisms that make their way into our food supply, and what they mean for our environment and our health. It’s a complicated and controversial issue, as we explored last week—and looks like it’s about to get even thornier.

A technology has just hit the market that brings new questions and concerns to the GMO debate. Synthetic biology, or “synbio,” doesn’t just change the makeup of certain natural entities, it actually grows new organisms that make things more efficiently than nature does.

Without getting too deep into the science, here’s how synbio works: By taking genes from a plant and giving them to yeast, scientists employ the process of fermentation to create the same compound that plant produces.

Proponents of synbio tout a long list of benefits. Synbio doesn’t require any land, which means it doesn’t harm the environment the way farming does and isn’t subject to uncontrollable factors like weather. It also doesn’t require any laborers, can be sold at a lower price, and will even have a better taste than the products it replaces. They also claim that each synbio product has undergone rigorous safety testing, and, since they are chemically identical to the natural products they mimic, they can be technically viewed as “natural.”

This opens up a big question about synbio products: should they be allowed to be marketed as “natural”? And should products with synbio ingredients be labeled?

Critics point out that these products are slipping through a regulatory loophole that allows them to avoid government regulation, safety assessment, and labeling. They argue that consumers don’t know the difference between completely natural and synthetic, and that there needs to be a more transparent process in place to flag when a product uses synbio ingredients.

woman sitting outside with mug in front of plant

The first and only synbio product on the market today is synbio vanillin, an alternative to artificial vanilla flavor. The artificial vanilla that most people are used to buying is made from petrochemicals and paper mill waste—not exactly healthy stuff—and so the makers of synbio vanillin see their product as a “natural” alternative. However, you won’t know if you’re eating something that uses it—International Flavors & Fragrances , the company that makes it, isn’t revealing the food companies that use it.

In the synbio pipeline are saffron, stevia, the antioxidant reservatrol, and maybe even synbio dairy, which wouldn’t require any cows at all.

As this technology rolls out, the questions continue to roll in. What does “natural” really mean? Do consumers deserve to know if their products have been made in a lab? Do we need more assessment of the health impacts of synbio foods? The science is solid, the benefits are big, but the questions are serious.

Would you buy a synbio product? Would you feed it to your family?  Tell us what you think in the comments section below!

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