By Maddy Simpkins
Try to imagine the simple indulgence of biting into a perfectly juicy apple. The tartness of the fruit mixed with that familiar, satisfying ‘crunch’ is what holds the apple-eating experience high above any other type of produce. What if I told you there could be a way to make your enjoyment of this healthy snack infinitely more wholesome?
You know when you cut up an apple into pieces, perhaps to eat for later or to share with a friend, the slices begin to turn brown. As the fruit’s exposure to oxygen increases, the browning occurs. This is discolouration is due to a chemical process called enzymatic oxidation. Apples are not unique in this case – bananas, avocados, potatoes, and even shrimp are among the foods that are commonly effected by natural oxidation. However, through the innovative industry of biotechnology, the once thought to be inevitable issue of apples browning too soon has recently been proven preventable.
A promising Canadian biotech company called Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. (OSF) recently trademarked a strain of apples designed to bypass the entire browning process. Introducing “Arctic Apples” required a plethora of genetic-engineering precision, using a specific ‘gene-silencing’ method to nullify the expression of polyphenol oxidase, the agent responsible for the browning.
In the economic world the browning of food is a detrimental cost, as the value of the market goods begins to depreciate. Methods of preventing enzymatic oxidation are available, yet each operation manipulates a different biochemical process. There is the addition of acids, such as lemon juice, to decrease the pH level and kill the copper cofactor which is essential for enzyme functionality. “Blanching”, better known as roasting, destroys all responsible reactants. Lowering temperatures can also prevent browning by reducing the rate of reaction. Finally, utilizing other chemicals like sodium bisulfate or nitrogen prevents the oxygen necessary for browning from reacting. Nevertheless, the alteration of our food is a growing demand as we live in a time where we simply don’t have the patience for these inconvenient means of preservation.
Various oppositions concerning these new apples voiced that they may pose an un-assessed risk to human health, that they are an attack on mother nature, and others believe they are just plain redundant. Sarah Dobec, board member of the Canadian Organic Growers, based out of Toronto, speaks for her association: “We really just think it’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Apples brown for a reason and that’s nature telling us that it’s slowly degrading or oxidizing, so to remove that function of the biology of the apple doesn’t seem to serve anybody really.”
The fruit industries in Canada and other Western countries must have their produce withstand strenuous inspections prior to selling for human consumption. In other words, your apple will be classified, graded, and scanned for any uncommon aesthetics or traits. The new Arctic Apple is quoted as having “more eye appeal, more mouth appeal, and more nutritional appeal” (arcticapples.com). Yet despite the company’s fantastic use of word play, the a-peeling product will not be hitting stores in 2015, but a small quantity may be available in the US next year, where the deregulation of GMO products is speedy. In Canada, it is a “seven to ten year process to research, develop, test and assess the safety of a new genetically modified food”, but Health Canada goes on to state that the labelling of these items is discretional: “The Government of Canada recognizes that for many Canadians, labelling of foods derived from biotechnology is an important issue of consumer preference or choice (…) a Canadian standard for voluntary labelling of GE foods entitled Voluntary Labelling and Advertising of Foods that Are and Are Not Products of Genetic Engineering was developed to address non-health and safety labelling.” In a nutshell, the meagreness of enforcement and regulation of newly-introduced genetically altered foods, and the lack of definitive legislation within Canada is quite an ambiguous gesture for a nation who is in the arms of Big Pharma (biopharmaceuticals) and is the birthplace of many flourishing private biotech companies.
The way the saying goes, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. But in this case, the controversy itself is much like our apples: once left out in the open and fully exposed to the elements, it is subject to deterioration. Without labelling, consumers lose the power to make their own judgements. And without the support of the consumers, the reasoning for creating more unpredictable, altered foods will no doubt begin to brown.