In 2008 media outlets around the world ran with the story of the GM purple tomato that could “beat cancer”, as well as keep you slim, ward off diabetes and help you safeguard your eyesight! All this because a team of researchers at the John Innes Centre, under Prof. Cathie Martin, had genetically engineered anthocyanins into tomatoes.
Yet anthocyanins are commonly available in a long list of existing fruit and vegetables, their exact role if any in disease prevention is poorly understood, and it turns out non-GM purple tomatoes are also available. But why would any of that stop GM researchers claiming you needed GM to beat cancer? (item 2 below)
Now four years later Cathie Martin and her team at the JIC are at it again. This time thay have worked out how to genetically engineer the gene for anthocyanins in blood oranges into ordinary oranges, and then called a press conference.
Once again this is generating headlines about beating heart disease, controlling diabetes and reducing obesity, although they seem to have skipped the curing cancer claims this time around – presumably because it might just remind even the laziest of journalists that we have all been here before!
Oh, and note that Cathie Martin’s claim that you “can improve your cardiovascular risk factors” seems to be based on “one unpublished experiment” with non-GM blood orange juice. Now what is it that the GM attack dogs, including those at the JIC, have always said about claims based on unpublished experiments?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.”
For more on the John Innes Centre:
1.Scientists create new orange superjuice to help beat heart disease
The Independent, 13 March 2012
A sweet Spanish orange that contains the health-giving red pigments of the Sicilian blood orange has been created by scientists who believe the fruit will produce a “superjuice” that helps to combat a range of medical disorders, from obesity and heart disease to irritable bowel syndrome.
The first genetically modified (GM) Valencia orange seedlings with added genes for the red pigments of the Sicilian blood orange are now growing in a Spanish research centre. They should produce the first GM oranges later this year, according to researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, who led the study.
Blood oranges are rich in anthocyanins – pigments that impart red, purple and blue colours to fruit – which are also believed to protect the body against a wide range of illnesses, said Professor Cathie Martin of the John Innes Centre.
“Studies have shown that blood orange juice can prevent weight gain, and other studies, yet to be published, have shown that even one drink of blood orange juice can improve your cardiovascular risk factors compared to blonde orange juice,” Professor Martin said.
However, blood oranges are notoriously difficult to cultivate because they require periods of cold temperatures immediately prior to harvesting, which stimulates the production of the anthocyanins, Professor Martin said.
For this reason, the cultivation of blood oranges is largely confined to one of the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, but by transferring the genetic switch for the red pigment genes to the commercial Valencia orange, the scientists hope to extend production of blood-red oranges to Spain and Brazil.
“It’s sometimes very difficult to find blood orange juice and the reason for that is that you need special climatic conditions for them to grow. They need a period of cold during times of harvest,” Professor Martin said.
In one unpublished experiment involving 25 volunteers who ate a full English breakfast, those who drank half a litre of blood orange juice with their meal had significantly lower risk factors for heart disease, such as fatty acids, in the bloodstream.
2.”Purple tomato can beat cancer”
[see original for multiple embedded links]
“Purple tomato can beat cancer” was the headline to a front-page story in the UK paper, the Dail Express, which claimed that scientists at the John Innes Centre had genetically modified tomatoes with genes from a snapdragon plant to create “the ultimate healthy superfood”. According to the Express, the GM tomato, because of its increased antioxidants, could protect you against cancer, keep you slim, ward off diabetes and help you safeguard your eyesight. There was also enthusiastic coverage of the GM tomato on the BBC TV Horizon programme, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, CNN, CBS, ABC, Reuters and the UK tabloid and broadsheet daily and Sunday newspapers, amongst many other media outlets worldwide.
However, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) both expressed strong reservations about the coverage of the story. According to an article in NHS Choices, reporting the views of the NHS Knowledge Service: “These claims are not actually based on benefits seen in humans, but rather from a small-scale study of mice that were given an extract of genetically modified tomatoes.” The NHS Knowledge Service also notes: “The small sample sizes used mean the results may have occurred by chance. Also until the tomato is tested in humans we cannot be sure that it will offer the same benefits, or that there will not be any unexpected harms.” It concluded that without further research the claims that these GM tomatoes “can beat cancer” cannot be supported.
Cancer Research UK noted on its Science Update blog that “cancer is a complex disease that has lots of ’causes’… The problem with a lot of the coverage of the super-tomato story is that it misses out on this complexity… There’s also a big – and in our opinion unwarranted – assumption in some of the coverage. And that’s the simple equation that antioxidants = good. There’s a fair amount of evidence that some antioxidants in our foods can help prevent some kinds of cancer in some people. But the complexity of this evidence often gets translated in the media and in advertising to ‘antioxidants prevent disease’. And that’s not what the science says.” 
It’s worth noting that the dubious claims about purple tomatoes and cancer and the simplistic claims about antioxidants originated with the media work of the John Innes Centre (“Purple tomatoes may keep cancer at bay”). They were not made up by the press, even if they were reported uncritically. And the John Innes Centre also appears to have made no effort to play down or otherwise correct the claims that were made as a result of its media work. In fact, it seems to have welcomed and encouraged the PR impact from the coverage. For example, one of the researchers involved wrote an article for the Daily Mail which was headlined, “How my purple tomato could save your life”.
While the researchers may not have been responsible for the headline, far from seeking to rectify any of the hype or misinformation arising from their claims, the JIC clearly saw the coverage of the purple tomato story as an excellent means of promoting GM. A front page piece in a JIC house publication noted enthusiastically: “Our research has been reported very positively world wide… and has already had a societal impact in the UK, helping re-frame the GM debate.”
A good example of how the upbeat coverage was achieved is provided by Professor Cathie Martin’s comment in the JIC’s press release that, “The next step will be to take the preclinical data forward to human studies with volunteers to see if we can promote health through dietary preventive medicine strategies.” But in a more measured press release from one of the JIC’s collaboarators in the research – the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore – Marco Giorgio from the European Institute of Oncology warns, “We have to consider that in this study we have not taken into account any possible toxicity so I shall say we’re far from considering a human trial.”
It’s also worth noting that significant levels of the antioxidant (anthocyanins) which led the GM tomato to be described as the “ultimate healthy superfood” already occur naturally in a whole range of common fruit and vegetables, including raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, bilberries, red cabbage, red onions and aubergines (eggplants). The JIC researchers argue that tomatoes are consumed by people who might not normally consume these fruits and vegetables. It is questionable, however, whether people who are so conservative in their food choices would be attracted to a tomato with a highly unconventional appearance – one newspaper described it as looking “like a cross between an orange and a black pudding.” And Dr Lara Bennet of CRUK warns that in any case, “it is too early to say whether anthocyanins obtained through diet could help to reduce the risk of cancer”.
But if anyone is convinced that only an anthocyanin-enriched purple tomato will help save them from cancer, researchers in Brazil have produced a non-GM variety, and researchers at Oregon State University already have a non-GM anthocyanin-enriched purple tomato available commercially.
1. Victoria Fletcher, “Purple tomato can beat cancer”, Daily Express, 27 October 2008, accessed 10 June 2009
2. “Purple tomatoes ‘beat cancer’”, NHS Choices, 27 October 2008, accessed 10 June 2009
3. Lisa Melton, “The antioxidant myth: A medical fairy tale”, New Scientist, 5 August 2006, accessed 10 June 2009
4. “Purple tomatoes won’t beat cancer”, Cancer Research UK Science Update blog, undated, accessed 10 June 2009
5. “Purple tomatoes may keep cancer at bay”, press release, John Innes Centre, October 2008, accessed 10 June 2009
6. Cathie Martin, “How my purple tomato could save your life”, Daily Mail, 8 November 2008, accessed 10 June 2009
7. “Purple tomatoes – A GM research tool with worldwide appeal”, Advances, John Innes Centre and Sainsbury Laboratory, Issue 12, Winter 2008-9, accessed 10 June 2009
8. “Purple tomatoes may keep cancer at bay”, press release, John Innes Centre, October 2008, accessed 10 June 2009
9. “Purple tomatoes: The richness of antioxidants against tumors”, press release, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, 12 November 2008, archived on the website of the Institute of Tropical Disease, Airlangga University, accessed 10 June 2009
10. Mike Philpott, “What the papers say”, BBC News, 27 October 2008, accessed 10 June 2009
11. “Purple tomatoes ‘beat cancer’”, NHS Choices, 27 October 2008, accessed 10 June 2009
12. Purple tomatoes may fight cancer, other diseases, CBS News, 3 December 2011, accessed 4 December 2011.
13. Purple tomato debuts as ‘Indigo Rose’, Oregon State University Extension Service, accessed 30 January 2012