What do you get when you cross a tomato with a blueberry? The world’s newest genetically modified “Frankenfruit,” a purple tomato bringing cancer-fighting anthocyanins to a wider consumer audience.
In Ontario, Canada, researchers from the John Innes Centre in the UK are this month harvesting a crop of purple tomatoes grown inside a 5,000 square-foot glasshouse for regulatory study and other research as developers hope to move to market there within a couple of years. “We want to explore a way for consumers to benefit from our discoveries, as we are finding there is a demand for the added health benefits,” genetic researcher Cathie Martin, told PhysOrg. “With these purple tomatoes you can get the same compounds that are present in blueberries and cranberries that give them their health benefits — but you can apply them to foods that people actually eat in significant amounts and are reasonably affordable.”
The purple tomato may help improve the nutritional value of meals from pizza to pasta, with another variety already under development for use in skin care products. The fruit’s color comes from high levels of anthocyanins, compounds found in blueberries, blackberries, and other dark-colored berries. Compared to nature’s tomato, the new plant shows anti-inflammatory benefits — also slowing the growth of soft-tissue carcinoma in laboratory mice genetically designed for cancer experimentation.
“The most amazing thing is the potential to supply an expensive compound from nature more economically to large markets for food, livestock feed, cosmetics, food colorings and even pharmaceuticals,” said Paul Carver, CEO of New Energy Farms, which owns the glasshouse.
Like many genetically modified foods, or GMOs, the value-added from human manipulation comes by introducing a foreign gene, in this case one from a snapdragon plant. The researchers hope to gain regulatory approval from Canada to sell fruit juice on the market within two years, finding the country’s regulatory system more inviting to GMO food production than Europe.
Martin described Canada’s food regulatory system as “very enlightened,” even as large swatches of the North American public remain wary of the 20-year-old technology. "They look at the trait not the technology and that should be a way we start changing our thinking — asking if what you're doing is safe and beneficial, not 'Is it GM and therefore we're going to reject it completely,’” she said. "It is frustrating that we've had to go to Canada to do a lot of the growing and the processing and I hope this will serve as a vanguard product where people can have access to something that is GM but has benefits for them."
To date, consumers might have seen genetic modification as a technology facilitating large profits from agribusiness behemoths, with no personal benefits beyond cheaper prices. A survey of Europeans in 2010 found widespread distrust of GMO technology, by a two to one margin. Similarly, a U.S. poll by ABC News last year found that 52 percent of Americans distrust the technology while another 15 percent said they didn’t know enough to comment.
Although the scientific community overwhelmingly supports the safety of GMO foods, researchers say only time — along with good regulation and demonstrations of safety in the scientific literature — will modify public opinion.