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Modified Spud Gains Approval

Food Safety: Potato engineered to produce less acrylamide when cooked

by Carmen Drahl , Jessica Morrison
November 17, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 46

Credit: Shutterstock
A cascade of French fries.
Credit: Shutterstock

USDA has approved the sale of a potato genetically engineered to show less bruising and reduce formation of acrylamide, a potentially carcinogenic compound that forms in crispy fried starches.

USDA’s recent decision clears the way for Boise, Idaho-based agribusiness J.R. Simplot Co. to begin selling its Innate potato in the U.S. Simplot says it is waiting for FDA to finish a safety review before introducing the potatoes to a limited test market in spring 2015.

Simplot claims that its potato, with less bruising, will reduce food waste. It describes reduction of acrylamide in fried or baked potatoes as a win for public health.

“It’s one of the first genetically engineered crops that increases the safety of a food product directly,” says Jennifer Kuzma, codirector of the Genetic Engineering & Society Center at North Carolina State University.

But it’s not clear just how much the new spud could reduce health risks. Acrylamide was first reported in foods in 2002. The substance is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” according to the National Toxicology Program. Still unknown is whether regular exposure to dietary levels of acrylamide can harm people’s health.

The chemical forms during high-temperature cooking processes—such as frying, roasting, or baking—as a result of the Maillard reaction between reducing sugars such as glucose and the amino acid asparagine.

Asparagine is abundant in potatoes. To reduce levels of this compound in its Innate potatoes, Simplot silenced genes involved in asparagine biosynthesis without inserting genetic material from other species (Plant Biotechnol. J. 2008, DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7652.2008.00363.x). Genetically modified foods commonly contain genes from other species.

“This new potato is modified to have lower asparagine content so it will still brown when fried but produce much less acrylamide,” says John Coupland, a professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University. But as to its relevance, he adds, “If you are eating enough fried potatoes to get real toxic effect [from acrylamide], you probably have lots of other dietary problems, too.”

A reaction scheme depicting the Malliard synthesis of acryamide.


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