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The good news: scientists are hard at work developing a new type of gelatin that could render the old animal-derived method obsolete. A study published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry reportedly outlines the benefits of this new gelatin over its predecessors. Animal-based gelatin is subject to an awful lot of variability from batch to batch and, in some cases, even carries the risk of transmitting dangerous infectious diseases like Mad Cow Disease. This new way to derive gelatin harbors none of these risks, and scientists are working on producing large amounts that are homogenized enough to make further food production a snap. Marshmallows, jellies, and other gelatin-based snacks we take for granted could become more simple and inexpensive to produce.
Oh, the bad news? The new gelatin is derived from human genes. Human gelatin genes inserted through the power of science into genetically modified strains of yeast, to help scientists control its growth and development. Within the study, it’s referred to as recombinant hydroxylated human-derived gelatin. To think – the perfect gelatin was within us all along.
It’s a strange situation that most people would probably like to think they’d never have to seriously consider in their lifetimes. On the one hand, that’s fantastic that the days of grinding animal bones to make our bread pudding are severely numbered. On the other hand – well, human genes. The idea of splicing human genes into vegetables and other life forms raises no end of questions about what’s we eat and how we produce it.
Even with moral qualms about cannibalism and such aside (histrionic, we know, but hey: even Popular Science was thinking it) there’s simply something about the whole matter that seems like it will be a hard sell to customers. Everyone remembers the protests raised against genetically modified tomatoes and strawberries blended with fish genes to combat frost. While a useful application featuring two foods the average person is fine with eating, it still created a strong sense of unease with a reasonably large base of consumers. Scientists and food manufacturers will have to put some serious thought into the risks versus rewards of this application – will consumers accept this new ingredient like so many other technological advances, or will human-based gelatin prove to be the one advance that finally crosses the line?
Granted, this is still in the research phase and we’re still a long way off from literally having to contemplate human genes in our Jell-O. But in the meantime, here’s a thought: agar agar. Easy to produce (agar agar is seaweed!), more effective and consistent than gelatin, and it makes for some pretty delicious desserts in Asian cuisine. In the Western food industry, it’s generally referred to as a “vegetarian gelatin alternative.” Instead of constructing smoother gelatin out of GMO yeasts and human parts, why aren’t we upgrading agar agar from understudy to full time player?