What do raspberry food flavoring and insulin have in common? They – and much more – are made from E. coli

By Nancy Collisson

A well-worn American expression related to health advice goes something like this: If you’d just stop eating so much shit, you’d be fine! 

Considering that the packaged – shit – food industry in America lost $4 billion in sales in 2015, Americans are obviously taking this statement to heart. 

Now imagine if they ALSO fully understood that ‘processing aids’ – formerly known as chemical additives – that are used in processed food, originated from Escheria coli (E. coli) bacteria – aka shit – that 100 years ago had literally been extracted from the colon of someone who had had diphtheria.

Golly! If only we’d known of this, we might actually have cut crap out of our diets.

It is indeed an especially ripe irony that despite having eliminated much unhealthy food ‘crap,’ from our diets, we’re consuming it, literally.

For the past sixty years and last twenty in particular, scientists have studied and manipulated E. coli until they managed to alter its DNA and make it suitable to use as processing aids in foods and medicines. An $8.2-billion global enzyme industry emerged, and like the E.coli that proliferated, it too grew, supplying the food and beverage sector, and providing enzymes for cleaning products, animal feed, health therapies, and fuel. F&B is the biggest part of the E. coli industry.

Industrial demands for these so-called ‘synthetic enzymes’ – which are actually E. coli $#!% – is driven primarily by the massive returns that can be gleaned by biotech R&D units as genetically altered bacteria that can not only vastly improve quality of life but also generate health therapies that are matters of life and death. 

Enzymes made with E. coli are not granted the coveted FDA designation as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). However, biotech companies that manufacture compounds using it usually describe them as natural or even organic or vegan.

Bio-synthetics are replacing petrochemical-based ingredients (i.e., ‘natural’ folate for folic acid) that have been labeled GRAS but that have proven to contain carcinogenic elements that bio-accumulate in their users. Many of these have been used for the last half century in foods and medicines. One of the latest is likely ‘heme’ from hemoglobin, used in a new entry to the processed food market, the ‘Impossible Burger.’

‘Directed Evolution’

Painstaking variations in the process of creating bio-synthesized enzymes that can cost tens or hundreds of millions to complete, involve first isolating a desired gene (for example, limonene from a lemon). Then, through a procedure called transduction, that gene is inserted into the DNA of E. coli. If this procedure is successful, the resultant recombinant DNA (rDNA) reflects the desired characteristic found in the original item. Voilà, you’ve got lemon-scented E. coli. Within seconds, bio-engineers have directed and are able to observe evolutionary processes that had taken hundreds or thousands of years to evolve. 

The process has been used so successfully in creating insulin that at their Indianapolis plant, Lilly maintains 5,000 tanks that hold 50,000 liters each of this biomass. The global insulin market alone is anticipated to shoot up to $39 billion by 2020, and $53 billion By 2022, an increase of 35 percent. 

India and China

And no matter how much noise Americans make about GMOs that they know about and these GMOs that they do NOT know about, EM sales of enzymes will keep biotech in good stead.

Massive populations of people with rising incomes in China and India are expected to increase biotech sales of enzymes for food as much as 6.3 percent a year to reach $7 billion in across Asia in 2017. 

Nevertheless, because Chinese and Indians are renowned both for their preparation of meals using fresh ingredients and for keeping an eye on what the American consumer is up to, it is prudent to question whether or for how long they will continue having an appetite for the role or roll of E. coli that biotech serves up.

L-Cysteine in Bread

Indeed, presently throughout the world, the majority of commercially made bread and other yeast products like pizza dough, croissants, and rolls use the synthetic enzyme L-Cysteine, a non-essential amino acid born of the DNA marriage of E. coli to either human hair or chicken feathers, to speed processing and create a consistent product. 

Most L-Cysteine available on the global market for bread-product manufacturing is from China, where it is derived from human hair swept from barber shop floors and/or from chicken or duck feathers. This material is hydrolyzed in acid and then filtered and dried to powder form for packaging and distribution. 

Though few in the world are aware of this processing, word is getting out through popular health-focused Internet sites like NaturalNews.com, and the recognition through posted comments that humble bread is made with human hair reflect predictable disgust. 

The high repulsion factor and cumbersome nature of this level of industrial processing led Japan’s Ajinomoto to find a better way to manufacture L-Cysteine.

In 1988, scientists in Ajinomoto’s flavoring division used non-pathogenic E. coli to create a bio-identical form of L-Cysteine. Presently, Ajinomoto and Germany’s Wacker biotech firm compete with China to produce the most of the world’s bio-synthesized bread improver and dough conditioner.


E. coli was named after German-Austrian pediatrician Theodor Escherich who in 1919 used the term in a paper in which he described the relationship between digestive problems in infants to the bacteria in their colons, Escherechia-coli, or E. coli, for short.

As mentioned, the derivation of the E. coli presently used in all our processed foods is believed to be a stool sample of a diphtheria patient. In 1922 at Stanford University, that sample was labeled K-12. 

Scientists found this simple structure fascinating, and soon Stanford’s scientists started sharing batches of K-12 started with micro-biologists at universities around the country. They were excited by the fact that this simple structure could be easily manipulated. E. coli was so simple that it was one of the first organisms to have its genome sequenced.

More History

K-12 was used by Charles E. Clifton in 1940 to study nitrogen metabolism. Clifton then lent his batch of K-12 to Edward Tatum. For his work on tryptophan, Tatum was the first of many researchers to be awarded a Nobel prize for work with E. coli. 

But E. coli really exploded on the science scene in 1953, when it was determined that excessive manipulation of the K-12 batch by all these scientists caused it to lose its ‘O’ antigen, making it completely non-pathogenic. 

At that point, K12 was primed to become the best catalyst to generate rDNA because it was simple, cheap, pliable, could survive in aerobic or anaerobic environments, and it could breed and multiply by the millions in a matter of hours.

Tatum and a scientist named Joshua Lederberg discovered that by isolating desired nucleic acid molecules from a DNA sequence of something, through the process of bacterial conjugation or transduction, the insertion of that isolated gene into the DNA of the E. coli, they could cause that E. coli to take on that desired characteristic.

Indeed, to make their work with E. coli more pleasant, student bioengineers at MIT used this process to genetically replace the offal scent of the E. coli they’d been working with, with the scents of banana and mint. 

Deadly vs. Edible

During the last thirty years, repeated FDA recalls of items like packaged spinach or millions of pounds of ground beef due to contamination by pathogenic types of E. coli (usually serotype O157:H7), many in America and even around the world associate the very term with danger, death, and defecation. 

To avoid associations with this evil cousin, biotech marketing departments completely avoid mentioning the term in their informational literature. After all, among the most repulsive things in life, the mere thought of consuming fecal matter ranks right at the top. And no matter how many times you tell people that the E. coli doesn’t even exist in the item, well, fecal matter strongly imprinted is tough to wipe clean.

Rather, biotech marketing describe company efforts to develop food processing aids or health therapies as studies in microbial fermentation. While the description isn’t an outright lie, neither does it reveal the entire story.

Of course, another popular American expression that staffers in marketing departments know is what you don’t know won’t hurt you.

Lack of information has maintained blissful working conditions for biotech. For decades, bio-engineers have used non-pathogenic strains of E. coli to enhance foods – or serve as processing aids. Along with L-Cysteine, three of these include vanillin, aspartame, and chymosin. 


After several years’ effort, in 2007, scientists with Italy’s BIOMED created synthetic vanillin, the genetic essence of vanilla, by creating it in rDNA. To do so, they E. coli JM109 as a catalyst. They isolated the vanillin gene in ferulic acid found in rice bran, and through the process of transduction inserted it into the E. coli. 

Artificial vanilla flavoring has also been replicated through chemical processes as a petroleum deriviative, but BIOMED’s method is more biologically identical to real vanilla. Swiss EVOLVA claims to use fermented yeast as its catalyst to obtain its vanillin. 

Sales of real vanilla worldwide account for only one percent of the trade for this important engaging flavoring, which is still used by Haagen-Dazs and the most discerning bakers. The market for current petro-chemically derived artificial vanilla is about $650 million, for natural vanilla it is $150 million. 


Synthetic rennet, called chymosin, is recombinant DNA that originated with rennet cells derived from digestive enzymes contained in the fourth stomach of a slaughtered calf. Genetic material, rennin, was combined with plant microbes and secretions from specific E. coli bacteria to create the syn-bio product that coagulates milk to the point that it becomes a hard cheese. 

Chymosin is chemically identical to that derived from calf stomach. Cheese labeled ‘vegan’ is made using chymosin. 

Throughout the world, only France and Austria do not allow chymosin in the production of their cheeses. 

Neither rennet nor chymosin are listed as ingredients on cheese produced in the US or Germany.

Eighty percent of cheese sold globally uses chymosin. (Note to the curious: the coagulating effect of rennet on milk was likely discovered by nomads who used the sack-like stomach of a camel to carry milk, and found that the skin lining caused the milk to rapidly ferment and harden.)

The use of fermentation-produced chymosin (FPC) expanded after 2000-2002, when fears of Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) or mad cow disease caused a severe global market decline in demand for beef and veal, leading to a concomitant reduction in availability of natural rennet to produce cheese. 

The immense value of cheese in the global market is seen in sales of chymosin, which reached $1.5 billion last year, as chymosin is used in nearly 90 percent of all cheese manufacturing. 


Synthetic processing of sweetener aspartame, now also called neo-tame, originally produced by Searle, is highly protected and often described as the fermentation of pure bacteria. 

The actual bacteria that is used in its production, however, is a strain of non-pathogenic E. coli that are far removed from their original source. These bacteria are fed sucrose, glucose or molasses. Their secretions, said to taste 200 times sweeter than sugar, are collected and used in candy, chewing gum, sodas, and many other processed foods and beverages. around the world.

Consumer concerns about artificial and synthetic sweeteners like aspartame have driven up sales of natural and well-marketed Stevia. Stevia sales are predicted to reach $275 million by 2017. On the other hand, aspartame, which had held a value of $367 million in 2013, is forecast to drop to $275 million, a decrease of 25 percent, by 2017. 

Notably, Cargill and EVOLVA teamed up to create a bio-synthesized Stevia to compete with natural stevia leaf. The product entered the market in 2016 as ‘Truvia,’ described by Cargill as a stevia-leaf extract and a natural zero-calorie sweetener. Cargill provides an informational disclaimer linking to that statement, that the FDA has not defined natural, and to contact their offices for source and processing information. 

Fighting Copycat Biosimilars (Generics)

Bio-engineering processes involved in creating these enzymes for any of their multiple and immensely functional purposes are more complicated than chemical processes that have been used for the past 100 years to serve as food additives and petroleum-derivative medicines.

Big Pharma has grown so weary of watching their enormous R&D cash outlays patented products hit mass markets in the forms of easily reverse-engineered generics, that as they morph into Big Biotech, they are employing more protective strategies.

Anticipating the same or similar rush of competition from bio-similar manufacturers once their patents expire, biotech companies that have earned patents for rDNA enzymes created by their bio-engieers, now establish their own bio-similar branches throughout emerging markets.

From these points, they hire top scientists, maintain pristine lab conditions, control replication, use regionally appropriate branding and marketing techniques, and establish pricing of their own products. 


The proliferation of the study and use of E. coli in processed foods has run parallel to global rates of obesity and concomitant chronic illnesses of diabetes 1 and 2. 

Though connections may not be able to be conclusively drawn, it is at least remarkable then that the success biotech has achieved in manufacturing processing aids has also run parallel to their creation of health therapies that manage such illnesses.

These therapies are also E. coli-based.

On grounds of its Indianapolis-based plant, Lilly has 5,000 50,000-liter tanks that grow batches of E. coli that has been genetically modified to carry the DNA marker for insulin. It multiplies in the tanks by feeding on a broth of water, sugar, salt, and nitrogen and ampicillin, a drug that destroys any bad bacteria in the mix.

If They Only Knew

Considering biotech is providing inexpensive flavorings and processing aids that people appreciate, while also providing them with better health therapies than they were getting through petroleum-based chemicals, biotech companies would like to see consumers as happy and not asking a lot of questions.

But Americans can be an especially persistent bunch. Once a few start squawking, the rest start listening.

In this regard, millennials are the noisiest sector of the population. They are insisting on clean labels designed to list all natural ingredients and the words: no additives, no preservatives, and no artificial flavors or colors. 

They should add no processing aids. 

Maybe leaving off these words will leave Big Biotech further off the hook.

If educated consumers’ demands for clear labeling can be brushed off for another twenty or thirty years, their calls may be completely suppressed by 2050, when the UN anticipates the population to be 9.7 billion. It’s likely to be the case by then that biotech and Big-Agra will be so busy filling silos that cover the earth with geneticallly modified E. coli-based processing aids to help keep the world fed, that they won’t be able to care.

Ameliorating Evolution 

Small EM biotech firms that aren’t up to their knees in E. coli like their overshadowing counterparts would be wise to focus on developing more palatable methods of creating rDNA enzymes. 

Doing so would allow them to tap into a niche market of educated consumers who hunger for purity in their foods.

Once millennials accept that they’ve long been putting up with processing aids with unsavory origins, but that they’re still alive to talk about the experience, they will be willing to accept mass processing of food- and health-related enzymes that are more instinctively tolerable.

Directed evolution: selection of the host organism

New EM biotech firms could feed on this type of consumer the same way rDNA enzymes made from new host organism Bacillus subtilis (B. subtilis) could feed on – well, whatever E. coli has been feeding on.

B. subtilis is a microbe found in the top substrates of soil. Unlike E. coli, it has received the GRAS designation from the FDA. Along with various yeasts and algaes, B. subtilis has also been granted Qualified Presumption of Safety status by the European Food Safety Authority.

Should EM biotech make prudent use of this soil-based and therefore more natural alternative to industrial enzyme cultivation, their marketing departments could have a heyday.

They would be able to expose their lumbering counterparts for their unseemly business dealing in E. coli. At that point, they could sit back and watch the magic happen.

After all, showing your company has a clean, wholesome association with an item that’s listed on the European Food and Feed Cultures Association (EFFCA) of Microorganisms with a Documented History of Safe Use in Food, is a very good idea – certainly something everyone would be happier to sink their teeth into.

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