Tomatoes and Beyond: Biotech Promises

Consumers' Research Magazine, February 1993 | Go to article overview
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Tomatoes and Beyond: Biotech Promises


There are a number of biotechnology applications that will broadly affect all food processing industries. These include the production of natural ingredients produced by microorganisms and food safety applications.

* Natural ingredients. In the next decade, there will be a variety of new natural food ingredients produced by microbial fermentation for use by all sectors of the food-processing industry. In addition to the microbially-produced nutritive additives (amino acids, vitamins), flavor enhancers (MSG), stabilizers (xanthan gum), sweeteners (aspartame), and preservatives already produced by fermentation, the food processor will be able to select natural ingredients which add functionality, enhance nutritional quality, extend shelf life, improve convenience, or ensure safety. These will include omega-3-fatty acids and natural coloring agents (betacarotene) produced by algal cultures. Ingredients produced by bacteria will include flavors, enzymes, and biopolymers for use as a source of soluble fiber in the diet, for instance. The genes for sweet plant proteins will be cloned for the production of non-caloric sweeteners. Bacterial production of salty peptides will provide a non-sodium-based alternative for seasoning processed foods. Natural antioxidants, sulfite and nitrite replacers, natural preservatives, and non-caloric fat substitutes will all be produced by microbial fermentation.

* Food Safety Applications. Microbial pathogens continue to plague the food supply and food processors are expected to eliminate the danger of these organisms from processed food products. DNA probe and monoclonal antibody-based systems will revolutionize analysis of raw materials, ingredients, and finished products for the presence of pathogenic and spoilage organisms, bacterial and fungal toxins, chemical contaminants (herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals), and biological contaminants (hormones, enzymes). These methods will be greatly simplified so they can be performed in the field, at the processing plant, or in the home, utilizing "dipstick" technology. In addition, "biosensors" will be developed to monitor the freshness of chilled meat, detect bacterial contamination in milk, the hydrolysis of milk proteins, and temperature abuse of refrigerated foods. Biosensors will provide effective and economical means for monitoring food production, packaging, transportation, and storage.

In addition to these broad-ranged applications, key biotechnology breakthroughs are predicted to have an impact in specific segments of the food industry. For example:

* The Dairy industry. There will be genetic improvement of dairy starter cultures. Dairy starter cultures are used for the production of fermented dairy products including cheese, yogurt, butter, buttermilk, and sour cream. Current techniques for constructing cultures rely on mutation and selection that are imprecise, uncontrollable, and time-consuming. The cloning of gene transfer systems developed in the 1980s will be used to construct strains with improved metabolic properties, which will provide systems for selecting well-characterized traits, conferring precise and easy-to-monitor biochemical capabilities. This will have an impact on several aspects of dairy fermentation, including production economics, shelf life, safety, and nutritional content.

Milk, or antibodies isolated from colostrum or milk, from cows immunized against various oral and gastrointestinal pathogens could be used to protect humans, particularly infants and immuno-compromised individuals, from infection by these pathogens.

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