Introducing new flavours for beers – the power of genetically modified (GM) yeast

22 November, 2023

Innovation in the beer industry has recently been in the spotlight due to opportunities in flavour creation and raw material resource management. Companies in the US are genetically modifying yeasts, commonly used in beer fermentation, to impart desired flavours, such as peach, without having to rely on the actual fruit (1).

Bioengineered yeast presents several advantages, such as the ability to introduce tropical flavour profiles and provide a more sustainable flavouring method by reducing reliance on additional ingredients, such as water, for growing fruit crops (1, 2). Nevertheless, it does come with drawbacks, notably consumer scepticism towards genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and rigorous regulatory barriers, particularly in Europe.


GM yeast in the US

GMO products in the US are treated the same as ordinary food additives in that the product/additive/yeast must be considered as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe), based on its intended use. There are two ways for a substance to be considered as GRAS:

1. A GRAS notification can be voluntarily submitted by the Food Business Operator (FBO) if the FBO determines, based on widely available scientific data, that it can demonstrate the safety of the substance for its intended use. The FDA can then respond in three ways, providing:

  • A No Questions letter, confirming that no further details are required about the FBO’s notification
  • A Conclusion that the dossier does not provide enough evidence
  • A cessation of the evaluation process at the request of the notifier

2. Pre-market approval for food additives where the FDA will determine its GRAS status

Berkley Yeast, a US-based creator of genetically-modified yeast for the brewing industry, employed the GRAS notification route to confirm the safety of its genetically modified yeast strain. This particular strain imparts tropical fruit flavours/aromas during fermentation (3).

The company noted, in a recent interview (1), that selling products overseas is constrained by legislation in many countries that prevents GM use in the food & drink industry.

GM yeast in Europe

GM use in the food & drink industry can be authorised in the UK and Europe, provided certain criteria are met.

In the UK, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) can authorise GM foods if they are judged “not to present a risk to health, not to mislead consumers, [and] not to have less nutritional value than their non-GM counterpart”. They must also be labelled as coming from a GM source. (4)

In Europe, GMOs for food use must be authorised under Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 as amended. (5) The application for authorisation must be sent to a competent authority of a member state in EU which will inform other member states and the European Commission of its application, and a list of application requirements. Applications must be made in accordance with detailed guidance and risk assessment principles outlined by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). (6)

Obtaining approvals for GMOs in the UK & EU are more difficult to navigate and usually take longer than the US GRAS route.

Advancements in genetically modified (GM) foods offer a path to increased sustainability across the food & beverage industry. As the sector strives for eco-friendly solutions, a key question arises: will consumers accept GM foods for sustainability, or will concerns and regulatory hurdles hinder widespread adoption? Collaboration between scientists, policymakers, and the public is essential to address concerns, ensure transparency, and harness the potential benefits of GM foods for a more sustainable future. 

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