Letters to the editor, February 2014

This article was originally published in February 2014

Synthetic biology

I appreciate the concerns raised by the cover article in Synthetic biology: Food designed by computer (January 2014). However, I object to the use of the term “computer-generated” as a mantra of undesirability. If one looks a little closer, I’m guessing the genetic engineers observed and learned from the mysterious and wonderful power of nature to originally design key enzymes that occur in vanilla plants.

The genetic engineers likely used naturally occurring DNA sequences as their design template and introduced DNA that encoded vanillin-making enzymes into yeast. Computers may have been used to alter the genetic code of these naturally occurring plant genes to make them work better in yeast. I liken this to taking a picture of a beautiful sunset but tweaking the color balance with a computer program. Some people will enjoy it, some reject it as unnatural. “Computer-assisted” does not equal “computer-invented.”

A bioengineer cannot type vanilla into a computer and out pops a computer-designed DNA sequence or a vanilla-making yeast. Years of work by scientists uncovering a miracle of nature, layer upon layer like an amazing onion, using computers as tools, stand behind a vanillin-making yeast. Recently licensed medications that will cure millions of hepatitis C sufferers, and the medications that already have saved millions with HIV infection, also were designed with computer assistance.

Let’s focus on valid health and economic issues, mandating government oversight and monitoring for adverse health events and environmental release, and allow labeling that can empower consumer choice.
— David Koelle, Seattle

PCC replies: According to Jaydee Hansen, senior policy analyst at Center for Food Safety, the suggestion that synthetic biology is merely “computer-assisted” is misleading. Some of the DNA sequences produced with computers are more or less direct copies of the DNA of living organisms. But other DNA sequences are redesigned to create new sequences that never have been found in nature.

The engineering does not consist just of copying the vanillin DNA. Bioengineers have to redesign the pathways in the yeast, so the vanillin fits into the yeast and produces the desired result. Altering the pathways of a living organism raises concerns.

A National Academy of Sciences advisory panel concluded the genetic engineering of a biosynthetic pathway “raises the potential for unintended changes in the chemical composition of the resulting food” and “could lead to an increased concentration of catabolic products” (National Research Council, National Academy of Science: The Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects. National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2004.

Approval for synthetic bio-foods doesn’t require any animal feeding trials, much less human trials. The company is likely to decide what’s “safe” to market under the GRAS process (see Food ingredients: How do we know what’s safe? Sound Consumer, August 2013). In contrast, the new pill you mention for treating hepatitis C was tested on about 3,000 patients in two different experimental trials before commercial sales began.

Just having a product that “tastes” like vanilla does not mean that it is the same DNA. We don’t know of any scientific data on these concerns presented by Evolva, the company producing the synbio vanillin.

We agree there should be government oversight and monitoring for adverse effects — and labeling — before release to the public food supply or the environment.

Sustainable sardines?

I started eating sardines for breakfast about a year ago when I believed them to be plentiful. But recently the news seems to be that the West Coast sardine is now overfished and the brown pelican is suffering for it, so I stopped buying them. Figuring PCC would be aware of this, I was surprised to see them on sale. What’s a shopper to make of it?
— Lisa Arnold

PCC replies: The Pacific sardine fishery was rated a “Best Choice” by Seafood Watch in early 2013, reflecting the best available science and fishery management efforts. This includes strict catch quotas. Sardines prefer warmer water and populations are known to fluctuate as ocean temperatures fluctuate. 

It’s true West Coast sardine populations are low now and declining due to ocean conditions (cool water). The question is whether the level of fishing is appropriate given their low numbers, or if there’s too much fishing. A new stock assessment just came out, so Seafood Watch will be looking at the new data and determining whether an update and ranking change is merited.

PCC’s primary sardine vendor, Wild Planet, cans sardines from both the U.S. and Japanese sides of the North Pacific. These two fisheries have been comparable in recent years in size and abundance. Wild Planet believes U.S. sardine fishery management is sound.

The company promises to monitor the annual assessments and select only sardines that are sustainable.

Eating invasive species?

The September issue of Scientific American was a special issue on food. Although the entire issue is quite interesting, one article is particularly interesting, which covers the topic of controlling non-native, invasive species by putting them on the menu.

The article is written by a respected chef and, while his menu suggestions are tuned to his local area (Long Island), I see no reason why PCC could not find some Pacific Northwest invasive species to promote as culinary alternatives.

So I propose that PCC start to promote local invasives as food. I believe this fits with PCC’s mission on several levels and would provide a concrete way that PCC and our fellow members can help the environment directly.
— Neal, (PCC member since the 1980s)

PCC replies: It’s innovative and laudable that chefs are embracing the “Eat ‘Em to Beat ‘Em” food movement. Feral boar medallions with dandelion and Himalayan blackberries, and a Japanese knotweed torte, were served at a dinner to raise awareness about invasive species in Oregon last summer.

But there are practical reasons PCC doesn’t procure and sell invasive species. For instance, there are public health regulations that curb commerce in game meats, so as a retailer it would be difficult for us to sell wild pig, perhaps the most destructive invasive species. Millions of feral pigs in 35 U.S. states cause $1.5 billion in damages each year, destroying wildlife habitat and crops, fouling water supplies and spreading disease and parasites.

It would be great if Northwest invasives such as the Zebra mussel and Quagga mussel could be harvested, but we know of no fishermen doing the work. They also would not be easy to prepare. Similarly, foragers have not been bringing us purslane, wild fennel, garlic mustard or other invasive plants. Learn more about invasive species in Washington »

Coconut oil

Is it true most “raw” coconut oils are not truly raw? I have heard that “cold-pressed,” “extra virgin,” and “DME” are signs that it is not truly raw. Can you enlighten me?
— Rachel Newman

PCC replies: There’s no official or legal definition of raw, but a food generally can be called “raw” if it is unheated or cooked to a temperature less than 104 to 115° F. Virtually all virgin coconut oil in the U.S. market is dried and expeller-pressed at temperatures higher than that. Few oils are made using a “wet” process where the oil is separated from coconut milk using a centrifuge. The resulting oil can be tasty but it is less stable and prone to “off” flavors.

“Cold-pressed” refers to whether heat is used to extract the oil. This term is not well defined but most oil millers agree that “cold pressed” oil means the dripping temperature of the oil is less than 140° F. Dr. Bronner’s virgin coconut oil, for instance, has a dripping temperature of 130° F. Some purists say “cold pressed” means a dripping temperature of 120° F or less.

Virgin coconut oil is defined as being made from fresh, mature coconut and extracted only by mechanical (not chemical) means. The oil meets high standards for free fatty acid content, color and flavor. There are, however, no standards for the term “extra virgin” in coconut oil. That term has been borrowed from olive oil but all coconut oil offered as “extra virgin” is made using the same process as “virgin” and has the same measurable quality parameters. In fact, the Canadian government recently cracked down on “extra virgin” claims on virgin coconut oil as misleading, mandating that such claims be dropped from labeling and marketing in that country.

DME™ is a trademarked technology used by the Alpha Health Product company, and PCC doesn’t carry this brand. The DME process uses a manually operated cold-pressing unit to produce raw oil from fresh coconuts.


Can you tell me what the position of PCC is regarding fluoridation of the city’s water supply in Seattle? In my research I have become aware of the fact that the health risks from fluoridation far outweigh the benefits.

If you can put me in touch with any groups that share my concern I would greatly appreciate it.
— Ben Collet

PCC replies: PCC doesn’t have a formal position against fluoride but we use a triple-action Custom Pure water filter to remove fluoride and contaminants from the produce misters and bulk water dispensers in our stores. For more information about the debate over fluoridation, visit our website, pccnaturalmarkets.com, and type fluoride into the search tool to see articles and news briefs.

There is an active chapter of the Fluoride Action Network in the Seattle area. Visit Washingtonsafewater.com for information and to join an email list.

Also in this issue

Companies drop "natural" label

A growing number of food companies are removing the "natural" claim from packages. The reason? Mounting lawsuits for false advertising. Read more in the cover article of the Sound Consumer next month.

PCC Board of Trustees report, February 2014

Pre-election activity update, Have a burning question?, Board report, and more