Just when you thought things in the world of biotech couldn't get any wackier, what with protests over “Frankenfoods,” destruction of research facilities by eco-terrorists, and media-hyped demonstrations, the latest furor is **Mutant Spaghetti.**

Yeah, you read that right: mutant spaghetti.

And lest that sound a bit too tabloidish, how ‘bout tomatoes with petunia genes that are good for your heart?

Could I make this up? Ha, not even if I tried.

In Italy, where pasta is something of a religion, the populace has been in a dither over a German newspaper story that wheat used to make Italian pasta products came from varieties that had been irradiated, rendering them “mutant.” Further, it said, unsuspecting consumers are eating a host of foods that have been zapped with radiation or contain ingredients from crops grown from irradiated seed.

Italy's agriculture minister was outraged and urged his country's foreign minister to lodge a protest with the German government over the slander, farmers were up in arms, and newspaper headlines were big and bold — “Hands Off Our Spaghetti,” blared one.

From pasta, one can make a pretty easy segue to tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, ketchup, etc.

I am still kicking myself for not buying stock in Heinz, Hunts, and Del Monte when our two kids were growing up and ketchup was a required part of every meal (“The reason hamburger buns are split,” my son once advised, “is not so you can put meat in the middle, but so you can put ketchup on both halves”).

Neither kid would touch a raw tomato with a 10-foot pole. I, who have always considered garden-grown tomatoes food of the gods, tried to convince them how much healthier the real thing than the processed. Might as well have talked to a lamp post.

I may have to eat my long-ago words. Medical researchers now are finding that lycopenes and flavonoids in tomatoes do indeed have health benefits, including perhaps a measure of protection from some forms of cancer and heart disease. The studies indicate that consumption of tomatoes and tomato-based foods may also reduce the risk of lung damage from ozone and offer protection against cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and other eye diseases.

But…the kicker is that the benefits of these anti-oxidant chemicals are greater in cooked, processed tomatoes and tomato products. So, now kids can say: I don't have to eat tomatoes — ketchup and pizza sauce are good for me. Nyah, nyah.

At a recent international scientific symposium on the role of tomato products in disease prevention, Dr. David Heber, director of the University of Californa at Los Angeles Center for Human Medicine, said based on current research, “I would recommend that men and women interested in reducing their risk of cancer eat at least five servings of tomato-based foods per week. As little as 8-oz. of tomato-based vegetable juice, an 8-oz. serving of tomato soup, or a half-cup of tomato sauce has been shown to help elevate blood levels of lycopene in only two weeks.”

Other researchers at the conference reported that a can of V-8 juice per day can significantly reduce oxidative lung damage from ozone, and that carotenoids in V8, tomato sauce, and tomato soup may play a critical role in preserving visual function.

By now, pretty much everyone has heard of the research several years ago to insert the gene of an arctic fish into tomatoes, the goal being a cold-resistant tomato that could be better stored and shipped.

While that accomplishment offered no added health benefit, scientists with Unilever Research report in the May issue of Nature Biotechnology that they've added a petunia gene to tomatoes to make them produce nearly 80 times more of anti-oxidant flavonoids that may help fight heart disease. Paste from the new tomatoes retained more than 20 times the amount of flavonoids as paste from regular tomatoes.

Wouldn't it be cool now if they could come up with a tomato plant that has petunia blooms?


e-mail: hembree_brandon@intertec.com