Is it Real, Or Is it Senomyx? How New Flavor Technology Tinkers with Our Tastebuds
by: Lynn Stratton
Here in Florida, most of us know what will happen when we turn on the kitchen light at 3 a.m.: Something awful will scurry into a corner, or under the stove, or behind a door. And whatever it is (and it’s most often a palmetto bug, those flying roaches-on-steroids that we have down here), we also know that it’s still there, waiting to re-emerge and torment us some more.
The same can be said of the bigwigs of the food and drink industry. For years, we’ve been shining as much light as possible on the manufacturers of MSG and other flavor enhancers, and for a while it seemed as if they’d gone into their little hidey-holes, poking their heads out only long enough to proclaim “No MSG added!” (When we knew, of course, that it was a half-truth at best.)
Well, they’re back. And this time, with a vengeance. This time, they’ve decided to trick our tastebuds, and in turn our brains, into tasting something that isn’t necessarily there.
The company is Senomyx, and I’ll let them tell you in their own words what they do: “Senomyx is discovering and developing innovative flavor ingredients for the food, beverage, and ingredient supply industries using our unique proprietary technologies,” which will “enable our collaborators to achieve a competitive advantage and/or improve the nutritional profile of their products while maintaining or enhancing taste.”
And what are their “unique proprietary technologies”? When I started poking around, I kept running into the same phrase on numerous sites: “Embryonic kidney cells from aborted human fetuses.” (Thanks for that to Robert Cohen of www.notmilk.com.) So I did some investigating of my own, and that led me to The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which very helpfully has posted five studies done by Senomyx, in which I was able to read quite clearly, in the second article listed, that the technology did indeed come from human embryonic kidney cells. (Although you might want to look quickly, before they mysteriously disappear. Just saying.)
As Cohen has noted on his site, Senomyx has succeeded in genetically engineering taste bud receptor cell triggers. And the company itself notes on their website that their technology uses “isolated human taste receptors.” But what does that mean for us, aside from the repulsive origins of their technology? It means we’ll never again know exactly what we’re eating.
Again, I’ll let the company speak for itself. From their filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, we have this: “We are currently pursuing the discovery and development of flavor ingredients through six programs focused on savory, sweet, salt, bitter and cooling taste areas. The goals of our savory program are to enhance the taste of naturally occurring glutamate and enable the reduction or elimination of added monosodium glutamate, or MSG. The goals of our sweet enhancer program are to enhance the taste of natural and artificial sweeteners and enable a significant reduction in added sweeteners. The goals of our salt program are to enhance the taste of salt and enable a significant reduction in added salt.” Whew. Lofty goals, indeed.
No, just kidding. They’re not out to help us become healthier by producing foods with less MSG, sugar and salt. They’re out to make money with collaborators who will sell products proclaiming ‘no MSG’ or ‘less sugar’ or ‘lower sodium.’ And who are their partners in collaboration? The company notes on its website that they have entered into “exclusive or co-exclusive product discovery and development collaborations” with Ajinomoto, Cadbury, Campbell Soup Company, Firmenich, Nestle, Pepsi, and Solae.
Solae? No, I had never heard of them either. But that company’s website tells us “Solae was formed in 2003 as a joint venture between DuPont and Bunge.” DuPont, yeah, I’ve heard of them. Solae provides soy protein ingredients, but interestingly, their website specifically doesn’t mention product names, although they do say their products are in a host of items easily found in any store: meat alternatives, soy milk, energy bars, edamame, soups, chili, the list is impressive, and frightening for most of us who use soy for vegetarian reasons.
And so you know, Nestle is Gerbers, Alpo, Buitoni, Purina, Carnation, PowerBar, way too many to list here, but the Nestle corporate website very helpfully lists them alphabetically for you at http://www.nestle.com/Brands/RelatedPages/Brands+A-Z+Master.htm. And Campbell Soup is also Pace, Prego, Pepperidge Farm, Swanson, V8, and Wolfgang Puck. PepsiCo is also Frito-Lay, Tropicana, Quaker (which includes such Near East dishes as couscous and falafel, as well as Mother’s barley and other grains), Lipton, Tostitos, again, too many to mention here. Well, I’ll make an exception: In what I’m sure is unintentional irony, they also produce Ethos water.
Firmenich? Perfumes and other, um, odorants, as well as flavors. Lots and lots of flavors, because they’re one of the largest flavor-producing companies in the world. And why is Senomyx collaborating with the largest companies on the planet? From an annual report dated February of this year: “Our current collaboration agreements provide that we will receive royalties of up to 4% on our collaborators’ sales of retail and food service products, and in some cases higher on our collaborators’ sales of ingredient supplies containing our flavor ingredients.” I recommend taking a look at that document (a link follows this article), especially Page 5, where you’ll see that Senomyx has noted that worldwide sales of products that might potentially include their products are in the hundreds of billions. So 4% of that is, let’s see . . . a lot.
So in the future of food, which is racing toward us and may already have arrived (Nestle is already selling products containing Senomyx’s inventions in other countries), any time we reach for the low sugar, low sodium, vegetarian, healthy choices, we may be consuming something that came from a biology lab. In fact, any time we purchase a prepared food of any sort, whether it’s in a supermarket or in a restaurant, we will soon have no way of knowing what we’re really eating; is that flavor the real thing, or something decidedly different?
There’s more, unfortunately. I left out part of the earlier quote from Senomyx about their goals; here’s the missing piece: “The goals of our high potency sweetener program are to allow for the reduction of calories in packaged foods and beverages and to enable our collaborators to use product labeling referencing “natural flavors.” Senomyx is currently permitted by the FDA (gotta love ’em because, well, we don’t actually have any choice) to list their products as “artificial flavors,” even though they’re not technically flavors at all. But their goal, as they say, is to be able to call them “natural flavors,” as well. Let me ask you a question: How many times have you seen the words ‘natural flavors’ on a label and thought, whew, good. Nothing bad there! Yeah, me too.
To recap, a fast-growing company developing flavor “technologies” is collaborating with the world’s largest food and drink producers, which will then (now?) add those (human embryo-derived) substances to pretty much anything and we’ll think it tastes just dandy. They could add it to wood … oh, wait, cellulose is in wood, and cellulose is already in lots of foods. Well, they could add it to, I don’t know, the waste from pea-packing plants . . . oh, right, we’re already getting what’s euphemistically called “pea fiber” in lots of products.
But at least it’ll taste good! Or will we just think it does, because global corporations have decided, once again, that the real bottom line is their own, and that what we don’t know won’t hurt us, especially if they cloak it in words like “natural flavors?”
If it appears that I’m comparing the people who run the corporations that produce much of our food and drink supply to giant flying roaches, I’m not.
Not at all. These folks make the roaches look good.
For your reading enjoyment, see these:
The company’s website: www.senomyx.com
One patent for Senyomyx: http://www.faqs.org/patents/app/20080214784
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with the Senomyx studies, at http://www.pnas.org/search?fulltext=senomyx&submit=yes&go.x=12&go.y=1
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