Artificial food requires artificial ingredients, elusive compounds skilled in illusion.
That is why a company like Senomyx has been so successful in establishing itself as a key link in the chain of manufactured food.
It’s also why complete ingredient transparency is so necessary, now more than ever.
As we have seen, Senomyx’s bioengineered commodities advertise an ability to trick the brain into believing it is tasting something sweet, something savory, something real. The appeal to food corporations is a basic one: These chimerical flavors need not appear on a label, nor even undergo the usual FDA approval process for new ingredients. Fundamentally, Senomyx is marketing a stealth technology that blinds consumers and government regulators alike.
But the lack of transparency hides deeper secrets. Recall that Senomyx describes its research process this way: “Senomyx has discovered or in-licensed many of the key receptors that mediate taste in humans. We created proprietary taste receptor-based assay systems that provide a biochemical or electronic readout when a flavor ingredient interacts with the receptor.”
Writing in the journal New Scientist, Devin Powell offers a translation:
“To create its taste testers, the company adapted a tool that has been used by the pharmaceutical industry for over 20 years — lines of kidney cells with genetically modified DNA. Drug companies typically insert genes into these cells that coat their surfaces with receptors involved in certain diseases, to test how they respond to treatments.
“Senomyx inserts genes from the surface of the human tongue instead, which cover the cells with taste receptors. The company has developed cell lines that respond to each of the five tastes: sweet, bitter, salty, sour and savory.”
In the hot light of such transparency, Senomyx ingredients do seem to lose some of their flavor. But there’s more. The question of where Senomyx acquires these kidney cells is a controversial one, but a credible investigation by CBS News last year did attempt to trace the opaque organ cell supply chain:
“All but 7 of the company’s 77 patents refer to the use of HEK 293 (human embryonic kidney) cells, which researchers have used for decades as biological workhorses . . . The company appears to be engineering HEK cells to function like the taste-receptor cells we have in our mouth . . . HEK 293 cells trace their origin to a single fetal kidney back in the 1970s — everything since has come from cultured cell lines.”
More in our next post.