From wine to pasta to pet food, the biotech industry is producing enzymes that are increasingly found in our kitchens. “The beauty of industrial biotechnology is that it lower costs and is greener at the same time,” said Brent Erickson, executive vice president in charge of the Industrial and Environmental Section at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “So as they’re developed, they’re very readily taken up by the marketplace.”
I spoke with Erickson last month. Below, he talks about foods and other household items you may not realize have been touched by biotechnology.
- Bread: There are two potentially cancer-causing agents that enzymes have eliminated from bread and other baked and fried foods. Acrylamide is something that naturally forms in foods (breads and potatoes) cooked at high temperatures. Enzymes can convert the sugars and asparagines in these foods before they result in acrylamide. Potassium bromate used to be added as a preservative and a dough-strengthening agent in bread, but has been replaced by enzymes. What’s really changed is our ability to cut and paste genes. That’s been transformative over the last 20 years. So today, genetically enhanced microorganisms produce baking enzymes to enhance rising, strengthen the dough and prolong freshness. Our companies are also making enzymes that are called anti-staling agents. It’s three days for normal bread and 10 days for anti-staling bread. So it extends shelf life for a week.
- Cold cuts: They use enzymes in meat processing for cold cuts like turkey. When you make cold cuts, it rips the meat off the bone, and that shreds the fibers. The enzymes stick the fibers back together to have a firmer texture.
- Vitamin B2: In the past, Vitamin B2 was made in a 10-step chemical process that used toxic chemicals like aniline. In Europe they developed a genetically enhanced microorganism. They put it in vegetable oil and sugar, and it spits out vitamin B2 in one step. I think 90 to 95 percent of the world’s B2 is now made this way. Any process that would reduce the number of steps, particularly from a 10-to-1 ratio, would be adopted very quickly in the industry. The benefit is up to 33 percent reduction in energy use and CO2 emissions.
- Milk: The lactase enzyme in milk allows lactose-intolerant individuals to drink milk. Reduces flatulence worldwide. Before, there was nothing to use. Lactose is a milk sugar, and people who are lactose intolerant lack that enzyme so it just does it for them.
- Paper Towels: In the past, wood chips have been boiled in a harsh chemical solution to yield pulp for paper-making. Now there’s wood-bleaching enzymes produced by genetically enhanced microbes, which lower the use of chlorine bleach and dioxins in the environment. Enzymes can also remove inks from paper to be recycled.
- Beer: Beer is pretty low-tech, but companies produce yeast for the brewing industry. Novozymes in Denmark has also produced an enzyme that skips a step in the malting process to speed up the fermentation process. So that lowers cost and the amount of energy needed to heat the malt. It’s climate-change-friendly beer,
- Wine: There’s a lot of enzymes being produced for a lot of different uses in the wine industry. One is an enzyme called pectinase, which is used in Silver Oak, one of my favorite cabernets. It helps process the grapes and makes for better wine-making. The enzymes also help to extract more fermentable sugars from the grapes for more efficient wine-making. And there is an enzyme called corkzyme. Sometimes corks can impart an unpleasant taste to wine, and the corkzyme removes the chemicals that are released from the cork so it stays tasting good longer.
- Fruits and Vegetables: Novozymes makes an enzyme that helps the fruit industry peel fruit for canning. They used to soak in caustic soda. Enzymes can also keep fruits from breaking apart in baked goods.
- Flavorings: DSM, in the Netherlands—I’ve visited their food lab—makes flavorings. Your Cheez-Its, for example, have flavoring agents. DSM is doing some interesting experiments, like making clear milk. They’re also taking the proteins in milk, using enzymes to break them into shorter segments and combining them with a sports drink to help you recover from exercise faster. Senomyx in California is another company that is developing flavorings for unami (or savoriness)—that’s what MSG targets. They’re developing sweeteners and flavorings that are specifically targeted to your taste bud receptors. They’re more potent, so you can use less of them.
- Dish Detergents: They’re trying to phase out the phosphorus, and to do that you have to put enzymes in it. Enzymes clean dishes (and clothes) at lower temperatures than chemical detergents, which saves energy.
- Pasta: Enzymes make the texture smoother, so it’s nicer on the palate and easier to process.
- Pet food: Pet food can contain three enzymes: amylase to pre-digest starches; protease to pre-digest protein; and lipase to pre-digest fats. They are intended to help pets extract nutrition from different sources. But I like the animal feed example better because [the enzymes] remove the phosphorus. We have a big problem in the Chesapeake Bay with phosphorus contamination. In the animal feed, enzymes change the way animals metabolize it, so they don’t pass as much through. So that lowers the phosphorus waste and then that lowers the runoff into the bay.
- Juice and soft drinks: Enzymes are used as a clarifying agent to make fruit juices clearer, and they allow us to get every single drop of juice out of fruits. They also convert the starch in corn and potatoes to sugars for use in sweeteners and sodas.
- Cooking oils: Enzymes help clarify cooking oils and de-gum them. They can also convert trans fats to more healthful fats in oils. Algae is another cool one; they make nutritional oils. They’re high in omega-3s and used in baby formula. Martek (acquired by DSM) is one of the largest nutritional oil companies.
- Toothpaste: Helps us have bacteria-free smiles. It’s a newer thing, an enhancer. You get plaque in your mouth and the enzyme breaks down the proteins that hold those together. There’s also enzymes in mouthwash. I have a Biotene mouthwash in my office right here. It says, “bioactive mouthwash protection.” I got it because it’s alcohol-free, and I’ve read some studies personally that link alcohol in mouthwashes to oral cancer.