Gene-edited wheat reduces levels of cancer risk chemical when cooked
Field trials show that a form of wheat developed using CRIPSR gene editing produces lower levels of the potentially carcinogenic compound acrylamide when cooked at high temperatures
14 February 2023
The first field trials of a gene-edited form of wheat show it produces less of a potentially cancerous compound called acrylamide when baked.
While acrylamide in food isn’t a large concern for most people, many countries have set limits on how much is allowed to be present in processed foods, so some manufacturers are interested in lowering levels of it in products such as bread, biscuits and pastries.
Acrylamide is formed by a chemical process known the Maillard reaction when the amino acid asparagine – found particularly in starchy foods – is cooked at high temperatures.
Studies in rodents have found that acrylamide causes cancer, although it is unclear what levels would be dangerous in people. Foods with higher levels of acrylamide tend to be darker brown, so common health advice is to avoid darker toast or French fries, for instance.
The amount of asparagine in starchy crops such as wheat and potatoes can vary depending on their growing conditions. Many food products already breach acrylamide guidelines, but food agencies are likely to get stricter about this in future, says Nigel Halford at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK, who has been developing the gene-edited wheat.
In 2021, Halford’s team used CRISPR gene editing to remove one of two genes necessary for making asparagine from common wheat plants (Triticum aestivum). When grown in the lab, this wheat produces flour with about half the level of asparagine.
Now, the group has reported similar results when the wheat was grown in outdoor fields. As expected, when the flour was heated to cooking temperature, its acrylamide content was about 45 per cent lower.
Genetically altered foods are widely consumed in the US, Australia and many other countries. But in the European Union, some people’s fears that they are somehow harmful have held more sway over policy, even though most scientists say they are safe. If genetically altered foods are sold there, they must be labelled as such.
But in the UK, where some EU laws are being phased out after Brexit, new legislation currently going through parliament would allow the wheat to be sold without requiring the food containing it to be labelled as gene edited.
“We have got support from a number of plant breeders, but they are nervous about the thought of using gene editing,” says Halford.
Simon Griffiths at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, says public consultations suggest most people see plants that are genetically edited in this way – with a single gene removed – as less risky than the first generation of genetically modified foods, which sometimes retained new genetic material. “It makes them feel better about it,” he says.
In the US, potatoes with lower asparagine are already available. They are also less prone to bruising.
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