In what appears to be part of the government’s continued effort to make potato chips and French fries a constitutional right, the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week approved a new genetically modified potato designed to (maybe) not give you cancer when you fry it.
The new potato, engineered by major potato product supplier J.R. Simplot Co., has been altered to produce less acrylamide, a suspected human carcinogen produced by this vegetable when cooked in excess of 120 degrees. It’s also been tweaked to keep their “just cut” color for longer and not to bruise easily because bruised potatoes are totally gross, I guess.
How They Did It
Using a technique called RNA interference, scientists spliced in DNA from other potatoes in order to shut off four of the new Frankentater’s genes. This may be slightly less Weird Science-y than many other biotech crops that splice in DNA from bacteria, but it still raises questions. RNA interference is a new science and therefore experts aren’t 100% sure of the ripple effect it has. In this case, Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist and senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group, pointed out to the New York Times that one of the substances suppressed in the new potatoes appears to negatively impact the plant’s ability to fight pests. (I suppose one solution to this new problem might be to use more pesticides. Hooray!)
Detrimental domino effect aside, engineering a plant purely so it can be used in junk food is obnoxious. The bruising issue is one thing. Simplot seems to think it’ll make consumers more accepting of rough-and-tumbled tots—like that’s an issue. Even if it was, considering these potatoes are destined for the deep fat fryer, why does that matter? Has anyone ever in the history of potato chips been put off because their salt n’ vinegars looked bruised?
Should You Worry About Acrylamide?
As for the acrylamide issue, in the early 2000s, the substance was linked to cancer in lab animals when consumed in high doses, but since then, researchers have struggled to link it to cancer in humans. Still, last year the FDA issued guidelines to the food industry on how to reduce levels of acrylamide, making this particular GMO a slam-dunk push-through. By the way, you’ll find acrylamide in all kinds of foods, including many baked goods, cereals, coffee, olives, and prune juice, but it shows up in much higher numbers in fried potato products.
There’s no denying that it’s toxic stuff, it’s not the main reason that deep-fried potatoes are problematic. It’s because high temperature submersion in fat destroys nutrients and causes calories to skyrocket. Add a boatload of salt into the mix and you create chips (or French fries); delicious, easy-to-overeat foods prepared in a way that has been linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in humans (not just rats).
Luckily, despite the fact that GMOs don’t require labeling, the new potatoes will be easier to avoid than other more insidious biotech crops. The Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic varieties will be mutated, so unless you know the farmer or buy organic, avoid these just in case they’re GMO. (I’m more of a Yukon Gold man, myself.) However, if you’re going to eat French fries, spliced genes are probably the least of your concerns. No matter how you slice, dice, smash, or hash them, you’re not dodging any bullets by eating GMO-free fried potato products, so just embrace them for the junk food that they are.