Fake blood oranges

May 2012
Blood Orange Sorbet
Blood oranges. Photo by CLC Photography on Flickr
According to the latest research, 48% of men and 43% of women in the UK will be obese by 2030.

This trend will significantly increase the prevalence of strokes, heart disease, diabetes with its many complications, and multiple types of cancer.

Worse, obesity can start in the womb: expectant mothers who are, themselves, obese or diabetic are at risk of giving birth to big babies who are in turn twice as likely to become overweight adults. Since it's self-reinforcing, this shift towards obesity can only get worse.

In a desperate bid to combat the problem, scientists are even trying to treat at-risk, unborn babies with diabetic drugs to control their blood sugar.

A large part of the blame for the obesity epidemic has long been laid on high-fat, high-fructose, high-salt, low-nutritional value, chemical-laden junk food. US companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds are recognised leaders in the field, but many other food giants have jumped on the band-wagon.

In the UK, government tactics to curb the obesity crisis have followed the US model. Food companies are expected, voluntarily, to make their products healthy and to take on the task of improving the food literacy of consumers. At the same time, fast-food outlets abound near UK schools, celebrities and popular cartoon figures are used to sell unhealthy food and drink to our children, and major sports events which are in a unique position to promote 'healthy activity' are almost invariably sponsored by junk-producing food and drink companies.

Government influence and money spent in the right areas could reduce all these obesity-promoting influences. However, it seems more keen to spend your taxes on clever GM tricks to 'beat' obesity than to ensure our children have healthy food to eat and the knowledge of how to choose and prepare a healthy diet.

The latest GM baby to emerge from UK labs has provided a wonderful PR opportunity: it is an orange which is nutritionally-improved to cure obesity no matter how much junk food you eat.

The UK's John Innes Centre press office has announced the GM success story. Spanish oranges have been genetically transformed to convert them into blood oranges (see below). The 'super-juice' squeezed from them is expected to combat obesity and all its associated diseases.

Blood oranges

The commercial incentive for GM blood-orange-look-alike oranges is that the production of the real thing is very restricted. Blood oranges can only be successfully produced in limited areas on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. Spanish oranges aren't so fussy and can be widely produced, for example, in Spain and Brazil.

Behind the GM oranges lies an unpublished small-scale trial in which 25 human volunteers drank ½ litre (three oranges' worth) of (non-GM) blood orange juice with a full English breakfast: it was found that the biochemical risk factors for fat accumulation in their blood were reduced. Studies on mice have shown a similar response. The mechanism isn't known, but blood oranges are high in 'anthocyanins' which are anti-oxidants and are what give them their red colouring.

Assuming that the beneficial effect is due to the anthocyanins in the blood oranges, and that a GM analogue of the red colour artificially produced by a related plant grown elsewhere will have the same effect, and that people could realistically have access to, afford, and manage to drink three glasses of orange juice a day (21 oranges a week), the JIC scientists were quick to launch the first PR rocket for GM red oranges. The red GM oranges were carefully linked to sound-bytes stressing 'improving health', 'low-cost answers', and 'alleviation of nutritional deficiencies'.

Since blood oranges are oranges and Spanish oranges are oranges, it's difficult to see why genetic transformation was necessary. However, the JIC has a history of developing vacuous GM products. In 2009 the Centre trumpeted its creation of “the ultimate healthy superfood”, a GM purple tomato whose colour (also an antioxidant) was going to beat cancer. By 2011, a Brazilian team had produced a non-GM version of the same, and by 2012 researchers at Oregon State University had produced and commercialised a non-GM anthocyanin-enriched tomato.

Anthocyanins occur naturally in a whole range of red-coloured fruit and vegetables, including raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, bilberries, red cabbage, red onions, and aubergines. All this makes it even more questionable why the GM red oranges were created in the first place.

Further questions also need to be asked about whether the GM red colour really is healthy. The craze for anti-oxidants to stave off every chronic disease around has been described as “a medical fairy tale”. This is because there is a vast range of them, and science has not shown that taking a concentrated form of any single anti-oxidant substance is beneficial and, in some cases, has even found it to be downright harmful. For example, scientific testing of beta-carotene anti-oxidant supplements which were expected to ward off cancer in susceptible individuals, revealed a 28% increase in incidence of cancer and an overall death rate increased by 17%. For example, while a diet high in natural vitamin E anti-oxidant seems to lower cardiovascular disease risk, supplements were found to have no effect. When anti-oxidants are taken out of their natural context, their beneficial effects don't seem to come with them. Scientists have suggested that the roughage present in natural food is necessary for proper digestion of anti-oxidants. One has even suggested that the 'free radicals' which anti-oxidants are supposed to protect us from may be needed to stimulate our immune systems: artificial quenching of free radicals might therefore be damaging to our health. Juice from oranges forced to turn themselves red might not be a healthy option.

Also there's another side to the obesity crisis no one's mentioning.

The Institute of Science in Society recently highlighted the fact that there are 'obesogens' polluting our environment. These are substances which can disrupt appetite control, disturb fat balancing mechanisms, increase the number or size of fat cells, and cause heritable changes in gene function. Obesogens are endocrine disruptors and are especially damaging if exposure is pre-natal. The Institute lists 15 environmental pollutants and 5 pharmaceuticals known to be obesogenic; these may be the tip of the iceberg.

GM Watch commented on the unpublished 'science' which seems to form the basis of this GM venture:
“what was it the GM attack dogs, including those at the JIC, have always said about claims based on unpublished experiments? Yes, that's right: 'Quit the grandstanding and show us the peer reviewed evidence'.”

Clearly, rather than playing god with oranges, a more sensible use of scientific expertise and tax-payers money would be to identify and reduce obesogens in our environment, and to promote a fresh, varied diet for all.

The absurdity of proposing people can drink a huge volume of very expensive and acidic juice while continuing to eat badly and avoid exercise as a route to health, plus the fact that the report was fed to the press before the science had been published, begs the question: was the GM red-orange project ever anything but a PR stunt?

Full English breakfasts aside, the fashion for junk foods in the UK has spilled over from America where it is being driven by subsidised GM maize and soya. Remember that the PR stunt which is softening you up to accept 'healthy' GM foods will also be used to open the door to a further wealth of GM junk.

The moral is: eat a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, avoid junk food, and if the latest 'miracle' GM food seems too good to be true, it's probably too good to be true.

  • Jen Lavery, 'Big babies' at risk of illness in adulthood, Metro 27.03.12
  • Stephen Deal, Babies treated in the womb to prevent obesity, Metro 3.04.12
  • Denis Campbell and Daniel Boffey, Doctors turn on No 10 over failure to curb obesity surge, The Observer, 15.04.12
  • Steve Connor, Scientists create new orange superjuice to help beat heart disease, Independent, 13.03.12
  • Purple tomato can beat cancer,, 2012
  • Skinny genes - how GM food may help you stave off obesity, Guardian, 13.03.12
  • Lisa Melton, The antioxidant myth: a medical fairy tale, New Scientist Issue 2563, 5.08.08
  • Prof. Joe Cummins, Environmental Obesogens Make Children and Adults Fat, Institute of Science in Society Report, 29.02.12


  1. Obesogens are endocrine disruptors and are especially damaging if exposure is pre-natal. The Institute lists 15 environmental pollutants and 5 pharmaceuticals known to be obesogenic; these may be the tip of the iceberg. tamoxifen online


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