New genetically modified apples don’t brown when bruised
By Shanley Chien
It may take a few years for bins of Arctic apples to show up in grocery stores.
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved two types of these genetically modified apples that don’t turn brown when sliced. The flesh of the fruit stays a glowing white.
Canada-based Okanagan Specialty Foods specializes in agriculture biotechnology and created the genetically engineered Arctic Granny Smith and Arctic Golden apples.
“All we’ve done is reduce the expression of a single enzyme; there are no novel proteins in Arctic fruit and their nutrition and composition is equivalent to their conventional counterparts,” said Okanagan Specialty Fruit’s chief executive officer Neal Carter in a prepared statement.
Genetically modified foods often introduce new genes added into the organic structure. Instead, the scientists behind the Arctic apples used the technique of gene silencing to “turn off” the gene that controls the browning enzyme. Browning occurs when oxygen is introduced to cells and the enzyme, called polyphenol oxidase (PPO), quickly oxidizes apple tissues, turning them from their natural colorless state to the brown color we often see.
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service gave the Arctic apples a seal of approval, saying that the non-browning apples are safe for consumption. The apples are “unlikely to cause any adverse impact on survival or reproduction” of mammals and other organisms. APHIS’ assessment showed that the apples also don’t pose a risk to other apples, explaining that they “do not increase the pest and disease incidences in field trails” and there “should be no indirect plant pest effects on other agricultural products that are grown or stored in proximity” to the Arctic apples.
The apples retain the same nutrition value as regular apples, according to Okanagan Specialty Fruit’s website.
Jim Bair, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Apple Association, a nonprofit organization that represents the apple industry, said he supports consumer choice in whatever apples people decide to purchase, including Arctic apples.
“The only thing different about the Arctic apples is its resistance to browning once sliced,” he said. “If it encourages people to eat more apples as a result, then that will be a good thing because apples offer many nutritional benefits, whether it’s helping to prevent or reduce types of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and so forth.”
Bair said that helping people live up to the apple-a-day adage is a “laudable goal and if it gets more apples into food service, for example, and people are consuming more apples, then we wish [Okanagan] God speed,” Bair said.
In addition to promoting more apple consumption, the breakthrough in suppressing the browning process in apples offers one other key benefit: limiting food waste for consumers and the planet.
According to a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is a looming issue, with approximately 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. going to waste as it passes through the food supply chain, from farming, packaging, transporting and sale. Fruits and vegetables with signs of unsightly bruising, spoilage, or disfigurement are thrown out.
“Storage and shipping produce is a challenging issue to solve and a potential solution could be genetic modification if the pathways of that specific spoilage are identified,” said Rohan Shah, food safety and animal health specialist at the Texas lab of Life Technologies, a biotechnology company.
By suppressing the gene that causes apples to brown, the apples will have a longer shelf life and can decrease the amount of food farmers and grocers toss from spoilage.
That’s not to say the apples will never go bad. Arctic apples, like all organic products, will show signs of rotting once they’ve passed their expiration dates.
Food products are not required to obtain approval from the Federal Drug Administration, but Okanagan Specialty Fruit is working with the FDA to receive the extra qualification.