It takes time, effort and money for gluten-free companies to avoid genetically modified organisms
By Mary Beth Schweigert
Third in a series
People call the customer-service line at Rudi’s Gluten-Free Bakery with all kinds of questions and comments. But lately, a recurring theme has emerged: Callers want to know more about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
“When we first started [in 2010], a lot of people didn’t even know what GMOs were,” says Denise Day, Rudi’s senior marketing manager. “All of the sudden, everyone is asking” about GMOs, how they affect health and the environment, and whether the company’s products contain them.
For Rudi’s and a growing number of other gluten-free food companies, the answer to that last question is “no.”
Rudi’s bread, hot dog and hamburger buns, tortillas, pizza crust and other gluten-free products are sold in natural food stores nationwide. Avoiding GMOs is a deliberate decision that reflects the Boulder, Colo., company’s commitment to using only natural ingredients, Day says.
“We’ve been GMO-free since the beginning,” she says. “It’s part of who we are and part of what we’re committed to doing.” Many other manufacturers are recognizing and responding to heightened consumer demand for foods that are both gluten and GMO free. Producing foods that are free of both ingredients can be more costly and time-consuming, but companies say they are committed to making the safest products possible—and giving consumers exactly what they want.
Enjoy Life, an Illinois company that produces 36 gluten- and allergen-free items, was prompted to make them all non-GMO because of awareness in the market. “We started hearing more about non-GMO foods about three or four years ago,” says Scott Mandell, company CEO and founder. “Being a company that was specifically started to help consumers who have concerns about food ingredients, we believe that [it] is our responsibility to continue to stay on top of ingredient-related issues that affect our consumers.”
GMOs entered the U.S. food supply about 20 years ago, when scientists began genetically altering plants to promote pesticide tolerance and other positive traits. Many scientists, farmers and food manufacturers argue that GMOs make food production more efficient and economical and are perfectly safe.
But in recent years, GMOs have become a subject of heated debate, with rising consumer backlash tying them to possible health and environmental problems. Sales of verified non-GMO products now top $5 billion annually, according to the Non-GMO Project, a certifying group.
GMO awareness appears especially high among people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, who tend to be label-conscious. Corn, soy and other ingredients common in gluten-free foods are often genetically modified, which can make it difficult for consumers to find products that are free of both gluten and GMOs.
“That’s a big issue with gluten-free foods,” Day says. “A lot of them do contain GMOs.” Lucy’s, a Norfolk, Va.-based manufacturer of gluten- and allergen-free cookies and brownies, is among the companies both large and small that are producing more non-GMO foods. Company founder and chair Lucy Gibney, M.D., says the non-GMO trend is here to stay. “Since there are so many unresolved questions about GMOs, we don’t want to take any chances,” she says. “Our customers don’t either.”
A HEALTHY DEMAND
By early 2014, the Non-GMO Project, which offers North America’s only third-party verification and labeling of non-GMO products, reported more than 15,000 products on the market. The Bellingham, Wash.-based nonprofit doesn’t specifically track gluten-free non-GMO foods, but like other categories, the number clearly is growing.
Eden Foods, maker of a wide variety of gluten-free products, pledged in 1993 not to use any genetically engineered foods or ingredients. Company President Michael Potter has been on the board of directors of the Non-GMO Project since its founding in 2009. Today all Eden Foods’ products are made with non-GMO ingredients and 104 sold in the United Stated have verification.
Eden has established grower and supplier bases and testing procedures to verify that ingredients considered high-risk are non-GMO, says Jonathan Wilson, media manager of the Michigan company. He notes corn and corn-based ingredients are the most difficult to get non-GMO, but Eden products do not contain corn.
Glutino, which is part of Boulder Brands in Colorado, makes a wide range of gluten-free products available at retailers nationwide. Director of marketing Laura Kuykendall says public awareness of GMOs has grown in recent years, fueled in part by individual states’ high-profile efforts to implement mandatory labeling and grocery chain Whole Foods’ pledge to require labeling of GMO and non-GMO products by 2018.
“Non-GMO labeling for products has become increasingly more important to our consumers,” she says. “Consumers are seeking greater levels of information about where their food comes from.”
Gibney, an emergency medicine physician, started her company in 2007 after experimenting in the kitchen to create safe, healthy snacks for her son, who has severe food allergies. Lucy’s products now are found in 7,000 stores in the United States and Canada.
Avoiding GMOs is a logical leap for consumers who already gravitate toward high-quality, natural ingredients, Gibney says. Many people in the food business call the non-GMO movement the “new organic,” she says.
People on both sides of the GMO debate point to research that supports their position. But Gibney says she believes that in most consumers’ minds, the argument already is resolved.
“Though the conversation about non-GMO vs. GMO continues in the media, for most consumers in North America and Europe, the issue is settled,” she says. “No GMOs.”
“CLEAN” PRODUCTS – FOR A PRICE
Making foods that are free of both gluten and GMOs can take more time and cost more money. And the results have to taste good, too. “The challenges for making gluten-free and non-GMO products is identifying sources of ingredients that meet the standards we have established for gluten-free ingredients and that will also meet the requirements for non-GMO labeling,” Glutino’s Kuykendall says.
Corn and soy are common ingredients in gluten-free foods, but non-GMO versions can be difficult to find. The Non-GMO Project reports that 88 percent of corn and 94 percent of soy grown in the United States contain GMOs.
Soy is a main ingredient in House Foods’ Tofu Shirataki gluten-free noodles. Consumer and retail demands prompted the company to use only non-GMO suppliers and get non-GMO verification, says Yoko Difrancia, a public relations and marketing specialist with the Garden Grove, Calif., company. “Tofu is by nature gluten free, and people in general are concerned about GMO soy,” she says. But non-GMO soybeans do cost more.
Ingredients that are both gluten- and GMO-free often are more expensive. For example, Rudi’s Day says, canola oil that contains GMOs costs considerably less than a comparable non-GMO product.
“We typically can find (an ingredient), but you do have to look a little harder and do your due diligence,” she says. “We do believe it’s worth it. … It’s something we’re committed to doing.”
Enjoy Life has not had difficulty finding any particular ingredient, but higher cost is a reality, according to Mandell. “Being non-GMO does add some cost to our product, but we believe that the cost is well worth the positive tradeoff of having ‘clean products’ for our consumers, which in turn translates into greater sales and a healthier business,” he says.
Some smaller companies feel the impact even more acutely. Gator Ron’s makes barbecue and wing sauces, and bloody Mary mixes that are gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, kosher and non-GMO. President Connie Griffith says the 2-year-old Bethesda, Md., company takes pride in making clean products that are free of GMOs and other “junk.”
“Because it’s clean, the quality is higher and the cost is higher, obviously,” Griffith says.
More than 80 retailers, including smaller, more upscale markets and Whole Foods, sell Gator Ron’s sauces and mixes, primarily in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area. Some potential customers who taste the barbecue sauce at a store demonstration balk at the average price tag of $5.99 to $7.99, Griffith says.
“The competition with barbecue sauce—there are hundreds of them out there,” she says. “Our prices are higher.” But other consumers see “non-GMO” on the label and
buy the sauce without even tasting it.
EASING CONSUMERS’ MINDS
Dozens of other countries mandate labeling of GMO products, but the United States currently has no such requirements. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows food manufacturers to voluntarily label whether their products contain GMOs, as long as the statements are truthful and not misleading.
In an effort to boost consumer peace of mind, a growing number of gluten-free food manufacturers choose to pursue verification from the Non-GMO Project. Verified 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.”
According to nongmoproject.org, verification requires several layers of scrutiny, which include ongoing testing of at-risk ingredients and tracking of a product’s entire supply chain. The verification process generally takes about four to six months. Cost varies based on the number of products and whether they contain ingredients at high risk for GMOs.
Glutino currently offers 12 verified products, including breakfast bars, flour, baking mixes and pie crust. The rest of Glutino’s product line is under consideration for verification. Consumers who want to avoid GMOs trust the Non-GMO Project’s independent verification process, Kuykendall says.
“Through this certification, we are able to provide our consumers with the power to make informed decisions based on their dietary preferences,” she says. “At Glutino we are committed to full transparency when it comes to our products and ingredients.”
All of Lucy’s products are non-GMO verified. The Non-GMO Project label shows consumers that Lucy’s is serious about producing GMO-free foods and is willing to meet accepted standards, Gibney says.
“We always use the best-quality and most nutritious ingredient options,” she says. “So for us, meeting the verification requirements was just a paperwork process.”
Jessica Mindell, president and founder of Jessica’s Natural Foods, says she was motivated to get non-GMO verification for the six types of granola made by her Detroit company by her own interest as a consumer in non-GMO labeling. “I look for the non-GMO verified label when I shop and wanted to provide the same level of comfort to my customers,” Mindell says. “There is a level of security I feel when I see the non-GMO certification on a package, it is one less thing I have to worry about. Especially now that I know what a rigorous process it is to get certified, I trust the logo even more.”
For Mindell, honey was surprisingly the most difficult non-GMO ingredient to find. Her company switched to organic honey and had to get documentation verifying that the bees did not forage in an area within a 4-mile radius of GMO crops and that the bees hadn’t been fed any feed.
“It never occurred to us that honey could be a GMO issue until we became certified,” she says.
Sugar was the issue for Endangered Species Chocolate, according to Natalia Wolting, communications and customer service coordinator. She says the Indianapolis-based company had to switch the type of sugar it was using to get non-GMO verifications for its dark chocolate products, which are also certified gluten free.
“Consumers are looking for the best ingredients possible and if they’re already looking for gluten-free products, non-GMO is just another way to ensure they are getting the best product available,” she says.
Bob’s Red Mill, producer of a wide variety of gluten-free flours and mixes, in March announced that the Oregon company has enrolled in the Non-GMO Project and will begin seeking verification of its products.
Other gluten-free companies that use non-GMO ingredients say the verification process is too costly. Instead of verification, Rudi’s requires suppliers to submit certificates or letters confirming that ingredients are GMO-free, Day says.
“The No. 1 reason [Rudi’s does not do Non-GMO Project verification] is … there’s a really strict qualifier on the type of yeast you have to use,” she says. “It’s crazy-expensive. It would put us out of the market. We couldn’t even sell the product.”
SETTING NEW LIMITS
Debbie Kaufmann is Gator Ron’s vice president of public relations and communications. She also has celiac disease.
When Kaufmann was first diagnosed 10 years ago, she cut out gluten but changed little else about her diet. Through her work with Gator Ron’s, she has recognized the strong connection between diet and overall health.
Now that she’s more educated about ingredients, Kaufmann steers clear of much more than gluten. She limits her diet to mostly vegetables, fruit, seafood and poultry.
“When I read labels, I now look for more than just gluten-free,” she says. “I’ve learned so much about what is in foods that now I do try to stay away from fructose corn syrup, GMOs and other things that are unhealthy”.
Kaufmann is used to paying more for healthy, tasty gluten-free foods and doesn›t mind stretching her budget just a little farther to avoid GMOs, too.
“I know my diet is much healthier”, Kaufmann says. “More and more, people are realizing we really are what we eat”. GF
Here’s a sample of some of the
gluten-free companies that use non-genetically
➥ Bakery On Main
➥ Bone Suckin’ Sauce
➥ Dr. Praeger’s
➥ Eden Foods
➥ Endangered Species Chocolate
➥ Enjoy Life
➥ Erewhon Organic
➥ Jessica’s Naturals
➥ Lundberg Family Farms
Mary Beth Schweigert is a newspaper reporter covering health, food and other lifestyle topics in Lancaster, Pa. She regularly contributes to Gluten-Free Living and this is the third in her series about GMOs and the gluten-free diet.