November 8, 2003 6:45 PM   Subscribe

Many common food plants contain noxious and toxic antinutrients designed to ward off predators, including humans. Tomatoes and Potatoes for example contain Glycoalkaloids which cause a Depressed central nervous system; kidney inflammation; carcinogenic; birth defects; reduced iron uptake. Can Genetically Engineered strains increase these naturally occuring antinutrients and toxins? (more inside)
posted by stbalbach (26 comments total)
Even plants raised the conventional way can have these undesirable traits enhanced because the plants are more resistant to bugs and disease and thus more desirable by farmers for increased crop yield. Unlike GE plants, new varieties of conventionally-bred crops are generally not evaluated for toxin levels by the FDA before they are marketed.

Antinutrients, although not necessarily toxic per se, are plant compounds which decrease the nutritional value of a plant food, usually by making an essential nutrient unavailable or indigestible when consumed by humans/animals. For example, phytate, a common component of most seeds and cereals, forms a complex with many important minerals, making less of the minerals available.
posted by stbalbach at 6:47 PM on November 8, 2003

Both Tomatoes and potatoes are members of the deadly nightshade family. Which when they were brought back to europe from the americas they were food (the potato) for only the poorest, as the rich would not eat them out of fear of poison. Of course the edible parts of neither plants are toxic (except to the hypersensitive), which is of course why they are called edible. I wouldn't recommend eating the leave of the potato though.
posted by MrLint at 8:17 PM on November 8, 2003

Perhaps, now that yield issues have been addressed, genetic enginneering can decrease these naturally occuring antinutrients and toxins?

Step by step, towards perfection.
posted by UncleFes at 8:17 PM on November 8, 2003

Why, again, would our GM food overlords select for increased toxicity? Isn't that the sort of thing you'd spend a few minutes, y'know, checking your multimillion-dollar project for? Particularly given a fairly hostile market?
posted by majick at 8:26 PM on November 8, 2003

Why, again, would our GM food overlords select for increased toxicity?

If they were it would be all over their PR.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:51 PM on November 8, 2003

If they were it would be all over their PR.

"Today we are proud to announce that our new geneticly modified pototaoes now contain genes that render them undigestable by humans, resulting in sore throat, stuffiness, and of course, painful painful death. We think it will be a smashing success!"
posted by Darke at 10:44 PM on November 8, 2003

Great post, stbalbach. New Age myths aside, nothing really wants to be eaten - even the humblest of vegetables fight back.

Tremble before me, for I am rutabaga!!
posted by troutfishing at 11:03 PM on November 8, 2003

Perhaps, now that yield issues have been addressed, genetic enginneering can decrease these naturally occuring antinutrients and toxins?

They probably could if they really wanted to, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that a lot of them are important to the taste of the plant. That they're part of what gives tomatoes and peppers their zing, and so on.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:08 AM on November 9, 2003

Tofu shrinks the brain!

"...While soybeans are relatively high in protein compared to other legumes, Enig says they are a poor source of protein because other proteins found in soybeans act as potent enzyme inhibitors. These "anti-nutrients" block the action of trypsin and other enzymes needed for protein digestion. Trypsin inhibitors are large, tightly folded proteins that are not completely deactivated during ordinary cooking and can reduce protein digestion. Therefore, soy consumption may lead to chronic deficiencies in amino acid uptake. [8]

Soy's ability to interfere with enzymes and amino acids may have direct consequence for the brain. As White and his colleagues suggest, "isoflavones in tofu and other soyfoods might exert their influence through interference with tyrosine kinase-dependent mechanisms required for optimal hippocampal function, structure and plasticity."
posted by troutfishing at 12:10 AM on November 9, 2003

Soy aside, "many common McFastfFoods™ contain noxious and toxic antinutrients"
posted by troutfishing at 12:22 AM on November 9, 2003

I'll just smoke, thank you.
posted by password at 12:41 AM on November 9, 2003

Perhaps, now that yield issues have been addressed, genetic enginneering can decrease these naturally occuring antinutrients and toxins?

Unfortunately, until our knowledge of the physiological reactions to these chemicals is fully understood, I don't think tampering with things in one direction or another is a very good idea. Who knows if those same toxins don't perhaps have good effects that are currently not understood.

On an unrelated note, cherry's have cyanide in the branches. That's just cool.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:15 AM on November 9, 2003

What's this got to do with the internet?
posted by mokey at 2:30 AM on November 9, 2003

On long-ago review: the plural of cherry's cherries.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:35 AM on November 9, 2003

After nature has given us wonderful toxins such as nicotine, morphine, cocaine, ethanol, cyanide, tetrodotoxin and curare, people are still surprised when something in nature turns out to not be perfectly suited for human consumption.

Maybe we should genetically modify ourselves to be a little smarter.
posted by spazzm at 2:39 AM on November 9, 2003

Attack of the Killer tomatoes indeed.
So for the paranoid, what is safe to eat? Can I sustain myself on a diet of seaweed and water?
posted by monkeyboy_socal at 6:34 AM on November 9, 2003

We have brains to fight back against the plant kingdoms defenses. It is possible to process the plants through things such as fermentation and soaking to remove a lot of this. That is a reason there is a lot of wisdom in slow traditional methods of cooking such as Yoghurt (bacteria breaks down hard to digest milk proteins), soaking grains and lentils in acidic water for 24hrs (leeches out toxins). Sauerkraut (populates the gut with hearty friendly flora to break-down foods), sourdough (fermented wheat breaks down antinutrients). Much of this lost art of cooking has been so bastardized by modern methods .. such as bakers yeast to speed up the dough rising and yoghurt that is sterile of bacteria .. that we have lost a lot of the hard earned wisdom over the eons on how to eat food that is healthy. It is all about profit, damn the old ways.
posted by stbalbach at 7:17 AM on November 9, 2003 [1 favorite]

In one of his "Medical Detective" books, Berton Roueche wrote of a family made ill from eating tomatoes whose branches had been grafted onto Jimsonweed stock.

A close relative of tomato, Jimsonweed has a very hardy stock which is much stronger than tomato. Therefore, the grafted branches produced large and delectable tomatoes. Unfortunately, its leaves produced a toxic alkaloid which contaminated the fruit.

However, a neighbor who did the same thing suffered no ill effects, having plucked the leaves from the Jimsonweed stock, leaving only tomato leaves on the plant.

For years after I read this, I wondered if someone could genetically alter Jimsonweed so that it wouldn't produce that alkaloid--if they could, we could eat Indiana-grade tomatoes year 'round!
posted by kablam at 7:43 AM on November 9, 2003

Sounds a little like Tomacco.
posted by troutfishing at 8:26 AM on November 9, 2003

Actually yogurt has 2 bacteria, and they convert lactose into lactic acid. The protein gets curdled in the higher acid environment. that is all move along.

PS Good Eats with alton brown is a great show with lots of food science.
posted by MrLint at 9:38 AM on November 9, 2003

"I ate nothing but infant formula until I was five," Brett bragged. "I was strong as a horse as a little kid, I was never sock a day in my life. I could do chin-ups, I could run all day, I could beat up all the kids who were still eating stuff like milk! And vegetables! Wow, that ought to be a crime, feeding little kids vegetables. Did you ever eat vegetables?"

"Not in fifty years. I think it is a crime to feed vegetables to children now, actually. In California, anyway."
-Bruce Sterling, Holy Fire
posted by Snyder at 9:56 AM on November 9, 2003

Lesson #1145 on why Snyder should proofread:

"...I was never sick a day in my life."
posted by Snyder at 9:58 AM on November 9, 2003

"New Age myths aside, nothing really wants to be eaten..."

Except for fruits. And some parasites. New Age myths aside, of course.
posted by Blue Stone at 12:19 PM on November 9, 2003

I was about to say the same thing, Blue. Fruiting plants depend on their fruits being eaten, so that the indigestible seed inside may be distributed. That's the whole point of having edible fruits. There are defenses in place to be sure the fruit is eaten at exactly the right time, by the right animal (natural insecticides, fruits that are bitter until the seed is fully developed, hot peppers that don't taste hot to birds), but tomatoes do, indeed, want to be eaten. What's New Age got to do with any of this?
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:56 AM on November 10, 2003

There are trees that "lament" the passing of the mastodons and the other extinct megafauna that once distributed their seeds. What animal now regularly eats the avocado whole, swallows the seed and excretes it far from the tree in a steamy, nourishing pile of dung? No such animal exists in the Western Hemisphere to which the avocado is native.
posted by stbalbach at 8:19 AM on November 10, 2003

Then there's only one solution: Bring back the Elephants!
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:34 PM on November 10, 2003

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