A research team led by scientists at the John Innes Center in Norwich, Britain, modified the genetic makeup of tomatoes to become a powerful source of vitamin D, which regulates nutrients such as calcium, which is necessary to maintain healthy bones, teeth and muscles.
Although vitamin D is formed in our bodies after exposure to sunlight, its main source is food, which is largely available in dairy and meat products, which vegetarians refrain from eating.
The researchers said that low levels of vitamin D, which is linked to a large number of diseases, from cancer to cardiovascular disease, affects nearly a billion people globally.
Tomato leaves naturally contain one of the basic building blocks of vitamin D3, which is called 7 DHC, and vitamin D3 is considered the best in raising vitamin D levels in the body.
The scientists modified the plant’s genome so that “7 DHC” accumulates significantly in the fruits of tomatoes, as well as their leaves.
In a paper published in the journal Nature Plants, the researchers reported that when ultraviolet light was shined on leaves and tomato slices for an hour, one tomato contained equivalent levels of vitamin D as two medium-sized eggs or 28 grams of tuna.
Most vitamin D3 supplements come from lanolin, which is extracted from sheep’s wool.
Scientists are currently evaluating whether sunlight, rather than ultraviolet rays, is able to effectively convert 7 DHC into vitamin D3.
New rules in Britain have allowed researchers to evaluate this theory, but it may be some time before these genetically modified tomatoes become available on the market.
“To fill the current gap in vitamin D intake from dietary sources, eating two medium-sized fruits of genetically modified tomatoes would be sufficient,” said Ji Li, the lead researcher of the research team, adding that “it is difficult to distinguish between the taste of genetically modified tomatoes and regular ones.”