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Your Vanilla Ice Cream Is about to Get Weirder

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Health Issues page and our Food Safety Research Center page.

Synthetic biology-or "synbio" for short-is the stuff of science fiction brought to life. Whereas standard-issue biotechnology involves inserting a gene from one organism into another, synbio entails stuff like inserting computer-generated DNA sequences into living cells: i.e, creating new organisms altogether. And the technology has made a major breakthrough: A company called Evolva has managed to create a compound called vanillin-the one that gives vanilla beans their distinctive and wildly popular flavor-grown not on a vine but rather in a culture of synthetic yeast.

Even though you'll likely soon be ingesting its products, synbio-like nanotechnology, which I looked at in twoposts last week-is virtually unregulated and can show up in consumer products without any labeling requirements. But unlike nanotech, whose tiny particles already pervade more than 1600 consumer products (including 96 food ones), the industry around synthetic biology is only beginning its push its inventions into things we encounter daily.

According to a recent piece by The New York Times' excellent Stephanie Strom, food and cosmetics manufacturers are "reticent" to disclose their use of synbio. But consumer products that likely contain synbio-derived oils, she reports, include laundry detergent made by the Belgian company Ecover; Lux, a shower soap made by Unilver; and a slew of mostly unnamed beauty products (examples include Elizabeth Arden Visible Difference moisture cream) that include a synbio oil from a company called Amyris.     

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