The Quest To Design A Healthier Tomato

A new type of tomato has high levels of resveratrol, which some research has linked to fighting cancer.
Salad showing high anthocyanin (purple), high flavonnol (orange), high anthocyanin and high flavonol (indigo) and regular (red) tomatoes engineered to form the basis of healthier diets.
Salad showing high anthocyanin (purple), high flavonnol (orange), high anthocyanin and high flavonol (indigo) and regular (red) tomatoes engineered to form the basis of healthier diets.
Courtesy of Andrew Davis and Cathie Martin

Last week, researchers in the United Kingdom announced that they’d developed a genetically modified tomato with the potential to help protect consumers from cancer. The tomato, described in a new paper published in Nature -- and not yet available to the public -- is among what researchers call the second generation of genetically modified foods. The first generation was designed to help farmers grow bigger and more robust plants. Now, scientists are trying to improve our health.

A Pew survey released in January showed that although 88 percent of scientists say genetically modified foods are safe to eat, 57 percent of the American public disagrees. Cathie Martin, who led the study at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, hopes these tomatoes will help persuade a skeptical public that some genetically modified crops are, in fact, not only safe to consume, but actually good for you. They contain a variety of health-boosting compounds including resveratrol, which some research suggests can fight cancer.

We caught up with Martin this week to talk about her research and why she thinks that we’re wrong to be worried about all genetically modified fruits and vegetables.
Why focus on tomatoes?

They are consumed very widely and therefore represent a way that a nutritionally improved crop could reach a large number of consumers.

Why is this new variety of tomatoes so good for us?

The new varieties that we have just reported have not yet been tested for their health benefits. However, one line contains high levels of resveratrol, which has been reported to protect against cancer. Normally this compound is available in the diet only from red wine or peanut products. One of our tomatoes contains the equivalent levels of resveratrol as in 50 bottles of red wine. We are currently undertaking tests to see whether these tomatoes offer [protection to the heart] in preclinical studies.

Have you tried these tomatoes yourself? And if so, how do they taste?

None of the compounds confer changes in flavor of the tomatoes. We are not allowed to consume material with seeds in Europe, for fear of inadvertent environmental release. However, I can confirm that all the lines taste like tomatoes.

Are there any potential downsides to these tomatoes?

We need to undertake tests to determine whether or not there are downsides. So far we have observed only positive effects, but these trials are not yet complete. Clearly any lines that have detrimental effects will be reported to discourage people from consuming those compounds in large amounts.

Are there other genetically modified fruits or vegetables that are similar to these tomatoes?

There are other GM foods that have elevated levels of healthy plant compounds like high omega-3 plant oils, but nothing like the tomatoes that can be used for comparative nutrition studies, yet.

How are these tomatoes different from other genetically modified crops?

Other GM crops have been developed to have traits that benefit producers -- such as herbicide tolerance, insect resistance and disease resistance. These tomatoes will be one of the "second generation" GM products that offer consumers benefits.

I'm curious to hear what you make of the public's perception of genetically engineered food. Why do you think such a big gap exists between the public's opinion of them and scientists' opinions of them?

I think that there is a big gap in understanding about GM food because a lot of misinformation has been broadcast about GM food by groups opposed to it for many reasons, not least because they support "organic farming" and the organic movement decided that GM products could not be "organic." Or because they oppose globalization of food production, and see GM food as a way of multinationals gaining greater control of the food chain. GM itself is a neutral technology -- it has been used for decades to produce pharmaceuticals such as human growth hormone or human insulin.

All new food products should pass regulatory scrutiny, but if any are ruled to be dangerous it will be because of the trait they confer, not the technology that has been used to produce them. Consequently I am confident that any of our tomato products that demonstrate beneficial effects in preclinical and clinical studies will be safe to consume. They will have undergone far greater regulatory inspection than any new food produced by more conventional breeding methods, before commercialization.

Do you think there's anything scientists can do to convince the public that genetically modified foods are good to eat?

Scientists need to get to a position where they can offer foods that have positive benefits for consumers. This should be done independently of the big multinationals like Monsanto, and then the public can decide whether or not the potential of GM can benefit society.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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