Frequent use of corn and soy raise questions
By Mary Beth Schweigert
First in a series
Maureen Burke has lived with celiac disease for 25 years — long enough to know exactly what she doesn’t want in her food.
Gluten is a given. But now another ingredient has made Burke’s do-not-eat list: genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. GMOs are plants that have been genetically altered to make them more resistant to pests, viruses and drought, and to improve their shelf life and nutritional value. But there is passionate debate about the safety and risks of GMOs.
Burke, of Crofton, Md., says she suspects that something in the environment or food supply explains the explosion of celiac disease, food allergies and related autoimmune problems. She’s decided to avoid GMOs until their potential impact on people has been sufficiently studied.
“I feel like we haven’t hit the tip of the iceberg as far as GMOs are concerned,” Burke says. “I don’t think we know everything yet. “With all the complications I have [including multiple food allergies], the cleaner I can eat, the better.”
GMOs entered the U.S. food supply about 20 years ago. They are present not only in whole plants, like corn, but byproducts like starches and flours that are a key ingredient in popular processed foods, such as cereals and crackers, including gluten-free products. Other countries mandate labeling of GMO products, but the UnitedStates currently has no such requirements. (See story page 31.)
Many scientists, farmers and food manufacturers say GMOs make food production more efficient and economical and are perfectly safe. But growing consumer backlash links GMOs to health problems and environmental damage, with many simply arguing that Americans have a right to know exactly what’s in their food.
At the same time, consumer demand for products that do not contain GMOs has swelled. The Non-GMO Project, which offers North America’s only third-party verification and labeling of non- GMO products, reached $3.5 billion in annual sales in 2013, just three years after the label’s launch.
Awareness of GMOs appears to be especially high among gluten free consumers, who tend to be educated and label-conscious. Rachel Begun, R.D., a food and nutrition consultant and gluten-free lifestyle expert in Boulder, Colo., says people who follow a gluten-free diet may know more about non-GMOs because they already pay close attention to what’s in their food.
“People who have to eat gluten free are diligent label readers,” Begun says. “In the process of becoming savvy label readers, we learn more about the food supply.”
In a recent Gluten-Free Living poll, a large majority of readers called GMOs an “important” issue. People who prefer foods that are both gluten free and non-GMO often cite a desire to eat as “cleanly” as possible and a belief that environmental factors contribute to increased cases of celiac disease.
People who want to buy gluten-free, non-GMO foods face several challenges. GMOs are prevalent in many gluten-free foods, especially those that are corn-based. Foods that are both gluten- and GMO-free can be difficult to find, not to mention costly.
But Burke and others say avoiding GMOs is worth any extra effort and expense.
“I think people are becoming much more aware of it, and I’m glad,” she says. “My attitude is, it can’t hurt you to avoid [GMOs] when you don’t know how they affect you.”
A GROWING AWARENESS
Gluten-free consumers’ natural curiosity about food labels and ingredients apparently extends to GMOs.
Gluten-Free Living recently asked its website visitors: When you buy gluten-free products, how important is it they also contain ingredients that are non-genetically modified organisms (non-GMO)?
Nearly half — 47 percent — said it was “very important” and that they only buy non-GMO gluten-free products. Another 36 percent said it was “somewhat important,” and they buy non-GMO gluten-free products when possible. Just 17 percent said it wasn’t important, and they don’t pay attention to whether gluten-free products are non-GMO.
Several factors may be fueling gluten-free consumers’ heightened interest in non-GMO products. Nancy Patin Falini, R.D., a dietitian specializing in gluten-related disorders in a West Chester, Pa., private practice, says a celiac-disease diagnosis often serves as a logical time for an overall “diet tune-up.”
“Some patients decide to shift their diet not only to gluten free, but to a more ‘clean,’ organic, nutritious, whole foods-type diet,” says Falini, who is also a consultant to the Celiac Center at Paoli Hospital in Paoli, Pa.
People who choose to go gluten free simply because they see it as a healthier option might find avoiding GMOs a logical extension of that goal, she says.
Alice Bast, president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, in Ambler, Pa., was diagnosed with celiac disease 22 years ago, when gluten-free food wasn’t as readily available and no one could afford to be picky.
“I just wanted anything that was gluten free,” she says. “Anything was better than nothing.”
Today gluten-free products have flooded the market, giving people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity more choices, Bast says. Now, once they satisfy their primary need to find food that is gluten free, other factors may influence what they buy.
“People are becoming a little more discerning,” she says. “They have more options. … They can have gluten-free food that is more nutritious, has a longer shelf life and is non-GMO, too.”
FOCUS ON HEALTH
A celiac disease or gluten sensitivity diagnosis often leads to a renewed focus on overall health. Many patients, especially those with related health problems, might question how environmental factors affect them, including GMOs.
How GMOs affect people and animals remains a hotly contested area. Those on both sides of the debate point to research studies that support their positions on the safety of GMOs.
Dietitians Begun and Falini say they know of no health effects that GMOs might have specifically on people with celiac disease versus those in the general population.
“There is a myth floating around out there that genetically modified wheat is to blame for increased incidence of celiac disease and/ or gluten sensitivity,” Begun says. “That is not possible, as GMO wheat has not hit the market yet.”
More research into what causes celiac disease is needed, and the potential role that GMOs might play in the gluten-free diet is important since the diet is so dependent on corn and soy ingredients, Bast says. But in the meantime, many patients see eating simple, minimally processed foods as a good step toward staying as healthy as possible.
“Until we have more research… people are trying to find food that is as healthful, nutritious, as clean as possible,” Bast says. “Those who can afford it and care about it are going to be looking for non-GMOs.”
Melissa Sklar, of Ann Arbor, Mich., is gluten sensitive and has followed a gluten-free diet for five years. Before she started the diet, Sklar suffered from asthma, allergic reactions and other autoimmune issues.
“When I gave [gluten] up, things started turning around for me,” she says. “I was sick, and now I’m not.”
Sklar has further restricted her diet, avoiding GMOs and processed foods in general and choosing natural, nutritious, whole foods. As a result, she now feels more youthful, renewed and energetic.
“I don’t touch GMO,” Sklar says. “I stay away from all that. I want to give my body the best possible opportunity.”
THE SEARCH IS ON
The Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit based in Bellingham, Wash., lists foods at “high risk” for GMOs, as well as foods to watch. Both lists include ingredients common in gluten-free products, making it a challenge for people with celiac disease to find foods that are free of both gluten and GMOs.
“Two of the highest-risk ingredients are soy and corn,” says Caroline Kinsman, Non-GMO Project communications manager. “Right there, that raises a flag for the gluten-free community.”
As of 2011, 88 percent of the U.S. corn crop and 94 percent of soy was genetically modified, she says. Canola, flax and sugar beets, which are used in many gluten-free foods, made the watch list. Canola seeds are crushed to make canola oil. Sugar beets are grown commercially for sugar production.
“Rice luckily is not a high risk for GMO, but it is on the watch list,” Kinsman says. “We would view it as a moderate risk.”
She recommends that consumers who are concerned about GMOs buy products verified and labeled by the Non-GMO Project. Another alternative would be to avoid foods on both the group’s high risk and watch lists. But Begun and Falini say adding more foods to the “restricted list” can be especially limiting for people on gluten-free diets.
“Corn is ubiquitous in the food supply and perhaps even more so in gluten-free foods,” Begun says. “Corn is also an ingredient likely to be genetically modified if it wasn’t grown [organically].”
Falini suggests that consumers looking for gluten-free food that is also non-GMO buy certified organic products, which must be grown from non-GMO seed. People who want to avoid GMOs also can try alternative gluten-free grains like buckwheat, bean and nut flours when making baked goods, she says. These suggested alternatives, in comparison to corn and soy, are not among some of the most common genetically modified crops.
Choosing certified organic food is a good first step, Kinsman says. But it does not guarantee that a food is GMO-free, since organic certification does not require regular testing, she notes.
“The truth is that GMOs today are so prevalent, contamination is so prevalent, oftentimes there is a lot of contamination of GMOs in organic food,” Kinsman says, such as “drift” from GMO plants grown nearby.
The Non-GMO Project, on the other hand, tracks the entire supply chain of products, which should give consumers more peace of mind, she says.
Gluten-free consumers’ familiarity with label reading works to their advantage, she says. Verified non-GMO products are labeled with an orange butterfly perched on a green check-mark shaped leaf, a blue background and the words “Non-GMO Project” verified product.
The Non-GMO Project’s website features a list of verified products, and consumers also can consult an app for guidance on the go.
HELP IS ON THE WAY
Shopping still can be a daunting task for gluten-free consumers who want to purchase non-GMO foods. Sklar usually sticks to specialty food stores.
“I can walk around a normal grocery store or convenience store and not be able to buy anything,” she says.
That may soon change. As of late 2013, there were 14,000 verified non-GMO products on the market, Kinsman says. The Non-GMO Project doesn’t specifically track gluten-free non-GMO products, she says, but the number is clearly growing.
“We do have a ton of verified gluten-free brands,” she says. “We are just seeing tremendous growth in all categories, from soups and dairy products to cereals and packaged meals.
And there is more good news for gluten-free consumers who want to purchase non-GMO products. In 2013, Whole Foods announced that all GMO-containing foods in its North American stores must be labeled by 2018. Whole Foods sells more than 4,800 Non-GMO Project verified products from 250 brands, more than any other retailer in North America.
“We have long believed that consumers have a right to know how their food is produced, so we strongly support mandatory labeling of GMO-derived food,” Whole Foods says in its position statement on GMOs and labeling. “We believe that government-mandated labeling of GMO ingredients would enable shoppers, retailers and manufacturers to make informed purchasing decisions.”
In the meantime, people looking for foods that are both gluten-free and non-GMO face another harsh reality: They are generally even more expensive than the already-premium prices for gluten-free products.
“Gluten-free foods cost at least twice as much and even up to six times more than gluten-containing counterparts,” Falini says. Non-GMO products will further boost food prices, since consumers must absorb at least some of the costs of the certification.
For her part, Burke is concerned about GMOs both personally and as a businesswoman. She owns One Dish Cuisine Cafe, Deli and Bakery, a gluten- and allergen-free business in Ellicott City, Md., and says finding bulk foods that are both gluten-free and non-GMO is especially challenging. She tends to make her own ingredients as much as possible or faces paying premium prices.
“[Non-GMO] spikes our cost,” she says. “[Gluten-free food] is already expensive enough.”
Burke says her customers are asking more questions about GMOs. She’s glad to see that awareness increasing, along with the number of non-GMO verified products. But until both are more widespread, she and her customers won’t compromise.
“I’m not a scientist,” Burke says. “There are a lot of people who are more well versed, who are experts on this. If I can err on the side of caution, I’m going to. Twenty years from now, we’ll know a lot more than we know now.”
REGULATION OF GMOs
The United States and Canada are two of the only developed countries that do not regulate the production and sale of GMOs, according to the Non-GMO Project.
Worldwide, 64 countries currently have strict regulations or complete bans on GMOs, including China, Japan, Australia and all countries in the European Union, Non-GMO Project spokeswoman Caroline Kinsman says.
At press time, dozens of U.S. states were considering legislation or opening discussions on mandatory labeling of GMO products, according to Kinsman.
“Obviously there is demand and movement across the nation for consumers seeking non-GMO products,” she says.
The legislation’s powerful opponents include Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents 300 food and beverage companies, including General Mills, Pepsi Co. and Nestle USA.
Seeds with GM (genetically modified) traits have been tested more than any other crops in the history of agriculture with no evidence of harm to humans or animals, Monsanto says. The company says its research teams conduct years of field trials and comprehensive testing to be scientifically certain the new trait and genetic modification have not changed the safety of the crop.
The Washington, D.C.-based grocery association notes that labeling products that contain GMOs would raise costs for both manufacturers and consumers. “The use of genetically modified (GM) ingredients is not only safe for people and our planet but also has a number of important benefits,” including more efficient and affordable food production, the association says.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows food manufacturers to voluntarily label whether their products contain GMOs, as long as the labeling is truthful and not misleading. But like a gluten-free label on products, there is no requirement that a GMO label must be used.
Foods derived from genetically engineered plants must meet the same safety and other requirements as any food, according to the FDA.
In April 2013, the FDA’s website addressed consumer outcry against GMOs: “We recognize and appreciate the strong interest that many consumers may have in knowing whether a food was produced using genetic engineering. FDA supports voluntary labeling for food derived from genetic engineering.
“Recently, FDA has received citizen petitions regarding genetically engineered foods, including the labeling of such foods. The agency is currently considering those petitions, and at this time, has not made a decision …” GF
Mary Beth Schweigert is a newspaper reporter covering health, food and other lifestyle topics in Lancaster, Pa. She contributes frequently to Gluten-Free Living and last wrote about the International Celiac Disease Symposium.