Pairwise is making mustard greens tastier with this gene-editing tool

PHONSAVANH, XIENG KHOUANG, LAOS - 2008/01/18: Locally grown mustard greens for sale in the main market of the small town of Phonsavanh, Laos. Traditional cooking uses mountains of fresh herbs, spices and vegetables to create a particularly healthy diet.. (Photo by Jerry Redfern/LightRocket via Getty Images)
PHONSAVANH, XIENG KHOUANG, LAOS - 2008/01/18: Locally grown mustard greens for sale in the main market of the small town of Phonsavanh, Laos. Traditional cooking uses mountains of fresh herbs, spices and vegetables to create a particularly healthy diet.. (Photo by Jerry Redfern/LightRocket via Getty Images) /

Have you eaten your mustard greens today? You probably haven’t. Although digestible, humans often avoid these foods because of their bitter taste. Is there any way to make them tastier? Gene-editing tools offer one possibility.

The idea isn’t new. A long time ago, farmers recognized the value of different plant characteristics. The kale and cauliflower in your lunchtime salad? They once came from the same plant agricultural workers selectively bred over long decades to cultivate their desired traits.

Gene editing accelerates this process, using modern technology to replace decades of breeding to modify plant genes. By mapping which traits correspond to which genes, scientists can snip pieces of DNA to enhance desirable characteristics and gradually breed out undesirable ones — like bitterness.

One company, Pairwise, is making mustard greens tastier with this gene-editing tool. However, is gene-editing food safe? Could there be any benefits to gene-editing plants, or is humankind too dangerously close to playing God with these alterations? Let’s take a closer look.

What Is the Gene-Editing Process?

In previous years, gene editing worked by comparing plants in the same family. Back in the days of Gregor Mendel and his peas, they altered plant genetics by selecting breedable species with the desired characteristics while decreasing undesirable ones over time — baby plants with unwanted traits simply weren’t chosen for the next generation.

Now, the CRISPR gene-splicing tool expedites the process. Scientists begin by identifying the genes associated with undesirable traits, like bitterness. They then snip out this part of the genetic code, resulting in plants without this bit that they then breed to create new heirloom strains of tastier plants.

So far, Pairwise has only used this technology within the lab. However, they hope to launch products in stores this summer, starting in the Pacific Northwest. They also hope to experiment with removing the external seeds from blackberries to see if it will increase consumer interest in this antioxidant-rich food.

Is Gene-Editing Food Safe?

In general, gene-editing food is safe. As technology advances, it will become even more so. For example, non-destructive testing allows scientists to look for internal flaws in a substance they cannot touch. Such tools can help them predict if removing a small slice of DNA could lead to unwanted adverse effects.

Although gene-editing food might seem unsafe because of the technology involved, it’s essentially no different than what Gregor Mendel did with his pea plants centuries ago. Instead of using nature’s processes to gradually eliminate unwanted genes and their associated traits, science simply speeds up the process.

Risk of Food Sensitivities

Everyone’s chemistry is unique. While most people will react to gene-edited foods without problems, exceptions exist. For example, although it’s rare, some people have developed a severe allergy to canola oil, a gene-edited food already available on the market. It comes from the rapeseed plant. Humans can’t eat the wild version, but scientists have genetically modified it to render it safe.

Chefs love canola oil for its neutral taste in dishes like chicken parmesan. While alterations made this oil healthier for many, for some, it causes unpleasant gastrointestinal distress, widespread inflammation and fibromyalgia-like symptoms in those sensitive to the proteins.

Allergy shots aren’t currently available for people with food allergies, so you must avoid anything you’re sensitive to. Perform an elimination diet to be sure, going without the suspected substance for two weeks while noting your symptoms (or lack thereof), then reintroducing the food to see if they reappear.

3 Benefits of Gene-Editing Plants

Are there any benefits to gene-editing plants? There may be. Look at these exciting potential perks of gene-edited foods.

1. They May Reduce Caloric Intake

Many of the foods humans crave the most are high in calories. By making lower-calorie foods more palatable, scientists may reduce the obesity epidemic sweeping America. Currently, over 40% of Americans qualify as obese and more are overweight, which comes with associated health risks.

For example, the dressing is often the most calorically-dense part of any salad, and people who dislike bitter greens slather it on to disguise the taste. They don’t always opt for healthy vinaigrettes, either. By making mustard and other greens less bitter and tastier, people will naturally reduce their dressing use and total caloric intake. Over time, little changes can make a huge difference.

2. They May Offer Superior Nutrition

One of the benefits of gene-editing plants is to enhance their nutritional value. It’s not so much a matter of adding more of the good stuff in as it is removing the stuff which blocks absorption.

For example, the phytic acid in some nuts can decrease the absorption of calcium, magnesium and zinc, vital minerals for neurological health. Other “anti-nutrients” or natural substances that hinder food absorption include saponins and tannins. These aren’t additives — they’re a part of the plant’s genetic code. However, scientists may be able to edit out these anti-nutrients, resulting in more nourishing harvests.

3. They Taste Better

Perhaps the biggest benefit of gene-edited plants is that they taste better. People eat for various reasons, and only a few pertain to health. Food is also a pleasurable indulgence, one that brings people together for summer barbecues and holiday gatherings. It’s a celebration of life that deserves to be enjoyed.

Tips for Trying Gene-Edited Foods

Hey, it’s okay to still have concerns. After all, everyone’s chemistry is unique, and the same substance that’s perfectly safe for the majority might spell misery for you.

When introducing gene-edited foods into your diet, do so mindfully. Be alert, but not overly so, to potential adverse reactions. If you remain unsure, use the elimination diet method mentioned above, eliminating the food for two weeks, then try it again to see if you have similar results. Who knows? You may just discover a new favorite!

Making Mustard Greens Tastier

Can mustard greens become tastier in only a generation or two? Pairwise believes it’s possible and has an exciting product line ready for launch this summer.

Only you can ultimately decide if gene-edited foods are right for you. They offer several impressive potential benefits, so keep an open mind. After all, people have long selectively bred foods to improve their flavor profiles, and there’s nothing wrong with adding a little science to speed up the process.

Next. Food Network shows us how to make chicken parmesan drumsticks. dark