Consumers are forcing reluctant companies to offer some options, but gluten-free choices are more limited
By Mary Beth Schweigert
Fourth in a series
Many people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity depend on Kinnikinnick Foods Inc. for gluten-free breads, rolls and other baked goods.
Now the Edmonton, Alberta, company’s customers want foods that are free of another ingredient: GMOs.
Kinnikinnick is catering to heightened consumer demand by making more of its products without GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. President Jerry Bigam expects that about 25 of the company’s 30 products soon will be GMO-free.
But even as Kinnikinnick adapts its offerings to satisfy consumers, Bigam worries that continued growth of the non-GMO movement eventually may lead to higher costs and food supply challenges.
Both specialty gluten-free food producers and mainstream companies that offer some gluten-free items are grappling with what to do about GMOs. Reactions vary from fully embracing the need to be non-GMO to acknowledging the consumer demand with some reservations to defending the safety and efficiency of using genetically modified ingredients.
“There is little understanding [among consumers] that the requirement for non-GMO ingredients in the existing food production system will increase food costs considerably,” Bigam says.
Still, Kinnikinnick is among a growing number of gluten-free companies responding to consumer demand by making products that are also non-GMO.
Experts say it makes sense that people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are especially interested in the GMO issue, because they typically are educated, label-conscious — and accustomed to paying premium prices for food that’s “safe.” Some consumers are concerned that GMOs are linked to health problems and environmental damage, with many arguing that Americans simply have a right to know what’s in their food.
Many larger, mainstream food companies have resisted the non- GMO trend, moving more slowly and with less enthusiasm in response to consumer demand. They defend genetically modified ingredients as common, safe and less expensive for farmers, manufacturers and consumers. Big food companies in the United States are also major players in the fight against required labeling of foods that contain GMOs.
Several large food companies, including General Mills and Nestle USA, declined to be interviewed for this story, referring Gluten-Free Living to their corporate websites or to information offered by the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Others, including Kraft Foods Group and Frito-Lay North America, did not respond to interview requests.
Overall, conventional food companies still produce only a limited number of products that are free of both gluten and GMOs.
Gluten-free products are often made with corn and soy, which are considered high-risk crops for GMOs by the Non-GMO project, a nonprofit advocacy group. Rice, another common gluten-free ingredient, is on the group’s watch list. A variety of other ingredients can also contain GMOs.
General Mills recently made headlines for marketing GMO-free Cheerios. But a spokesman told Gluten-Free Living that the company has no plans to make non-GMO versions of its gluten-free line of Chex or any other additional cereals. In response to further questions, he referred Gluten-Free Living to General Mills’ website.
“We know that some consumers remain uncomfortable with GMOs,” the website says. “As a global food company, we produce products without GM ingredients in some markets — we also offer organic and non-GMO alternatives in most of our major categories in the U.S.”
In 2011, Kellogg’s launched Rice Krispies Gluten Free Cereal, which is made with whole-grain brown rice and eliminates barley malt, the source of gluten in original Rice Krispies. The cereal does not carry a seal from the Non-GMO Project, which offers North America’s only third-party verification of non-GMO products.
“Genetically modified (GM) ingredients have been around for the past 20 years, are represented in the vast majority of the foods on U.S. grocery shelves and many other countries, and help keep food costs down,” says Kris Charles, a spokeswoman for Kellogg’s. “Many influential regulatory agencies and organizations worldwide have confirmed GM ingredients are safe.”
But Charles says Kellogg’s Kashi brand offers organic and Non-GMO Project verified options for U.S. consumers who prefer those alternatives. Kashi Organic Promise Simply Maize and Indigo Morning cereals are gluten free, as well as non-GMO verified, she adds.
“We understand consumers have questions and strong preferences about the foods they eat,” she says. “We offer a variety of Non-GMO Project verified options for consumers who want this choice, including 15 Kashi cereals.”
Though most are not gluten free, more than half of Kashi products will be Non-GMO Project verified by the end of 2015, Charles says.
Kashi explains the timing further on its website under the heading “Why 2015?” “There simply aren’t enough non-GMO and organic ingredients, and it takes time to partner with farmers to convert conventional farms”, the company says on the website. “Once we obtain these ingredients, we need to make sure the nutrition and taste of the food is consistent with the high quality you expect from us.”
Smaller specialty companies that exclusively make gluten-free products have been much quicker than large mainstream companies to use non-GMO ingredients. This includes Rudi’s Gluten Free Bakery, Enjoy Life, Eden Foods, Glutino and others. Most recently, Bob’s Red Mill, an Oregon company that produces a wide variety of gluten-free flours and mixes, announced it has begun seeking Non-GMO Project verification.
While many countries mandate labeling of GMO products, the United States currently has no such requirements. Many large food companies have engaged in a fight to stop individual states’ efforts to adopt mandatory labeling, saying it will raise costs and confuse consumers. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a vocal opponent of state labeling laws, did not respond to requests for comment.
In the absence of labeling laws that require disclosure of GMO ingredients, many consumers who want to purchase foods made with non-GMO ingredients rely on the Non-GMO project seal. As of late 2013, there were 14,000 verified non-GMO products on the market, according to Caroline Kinsman, the group’s communications manager.
Many large food companies acknowledge that much of the food they produce contains genetically modified ingredients. The companies say that while they are sensitive to consumers’ concerns, using genetically modified ingredients allows them to efficiently and affordably produce enough food to meet demand.
Nestle USA, on its website, points out that U.S. farmers have widely grown genetically modified crops for at least 20 years.
“It’s estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the foods we eat in the United States, both at home and away from home, contain ingredients made from genetically modified crops,” Nestle says.
Food companies argue that genetically modified crops typically require fewer pesticides or have improved insect resistance, which leads to greater yields and helps control production costs. On its website, the Grocery Manufacturers Association says genetic modification helps reduce the price of corn, soybeans, sugar beets and other food crops by as much as 15 to 30 percent.
“In addition, 1 in 8 people among the world’s growing population of 7 billion do not have enough to eat, and safe and effective methods of food production, like crops produced through GM technology, can help us feed the hungry and malnourished in developing nations around the world,” the GMA adds.
General Mills, Kellogg’s and Nestle also defend the safety of GMOs. On its website, Nestle notes that regulatory and health agencies, including the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, American Medical Association and World Health Organization, share this conclusion.
“On safety — our No. 1 priority — we find broad global consensus among food and safety regulatory bodies that approved GM ingredients are safe,” General Mills says on its website. “Global food safety experts will note there has not been a single incident of harm to health or safety demonstrably linked to the use of GMOs anywhere in the world.”
But the non-GMO project counters that most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe. “In more than 60 countries around the world … there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMO,” the group says on its website. “In the U.S., the government has approved GMOs based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale.”
THE INPACT ON COSTS
Companies that choose to make non-GMO foods often face highercosts and limited ingredient availability. Even as Kinnikinnick supports the non-GMO movement, Bigam is concerned about rising food costs, especially in the future.
If interest in non-GMO products remains mostly contained within the specialty-food market, the demand will be manageable, he says, and price increases just moderate.
“[But] in simple terms, if the food processing industry in general tried to switch to non-GMO products, in the short term the price of these foods would escalate dramatically,” Bigam says.
For example, he says, if a farmer growing canola changes to a non-GMO variety, his yield will drop 30 to 45 percent. The farmer will then charge higher prices to make up for the loss of income.
Then, if all companies using canola oil try to switch to non-GMO varieties, supply would fall short. Manufacturers would go out of business, and consumers would face a significant reduction in available products, along with much higher prices.
Higher costs and limited supply also affect the dairy industry, which produces a significant number of gluten-free foods, such as yogurt, ice cream and cheese. Many dairy manufacturers consider their products “GMO-free” when they do not contain genetically modified ingredients, a perspective shared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
But the Non-GMO Project has stricter requirements, which the National Milk Producers Federation calls “next to impossible” to meet. Products made using milk from cows that eat genetically modified corn or soybeans cannot earn Non-GMO Project verification.
Christopher Galen, senior vice president of communications for the Arlington, Virginia.-based National Milk Producers Federation, says finding cattle feed that isn’t made from genetically modified ingredients is difficult and expensive. Indeed, few dairy products are Non- GMO Project verified.
“There is very little non-GMO feed available, unless it is certified organic, and even that organic supply is limited and costly,” Galen says.
Using animal feed made from genetically modified ingredients doesn’t change the nature of the resulting milk, he says, and there is no detectable difference when compared to milk from cows raised on non-GMO crops.
Kinsman acknowledges there are challenges to getting Non-GMO verification of dairy products, but she says several brands including milk, cheese and yogurt have achieved that goal. And so have several feed producers.
“Because the industry is not set up to provide transparency for origin of feed supply, providing the proper documentation for verification can be challenging,” she says, noting that about 40 percent of the GMO corn and soy grown in the United State goes directly into animal feed. “Most dairies feed their cows corn, soy and alfalfa [all of which are high-risk GMO crops], and it can be difficult for these producers to implement testing plans or find suppliers who can provide identity preserved grains.” The Non-GMO Project provides resources to any producer who is interested in verification.
THE BATTLE OVER MANDATORY LABELING
Worldwide, many countries currently have strict regulations or complete bans on GMOs, including China, Japan, Australia and all countries in the European Union. In the United States, the FDA allows food manufacturers to voluntarily label whether their products contain GMOs, as long as the labeling is truthful and not misleading.
Individual states are having some success with non-GMO labeling legislation. In April Vermont became the first state to pass a GMO labeling law that does not depend on other states doing the same. The bill would require labeling of foods sold in Vermont that contain genetically engineered ingredients. It would also ban GMO-containing foods from being marketed as “natural” or “all natural.” At press time the bill had been signed by the governor and was slated to become law in July 2016.
“It is now very clear that federal labeling of genetically engineered foods is going to happen in the foreseeable future,” Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety, says in a statement released by the nonprofit public interest and environmental advocacy group after the Vermont vote.
Supporters of mandatory labeling also scored two victories in June 2013, when Connecticut and Maine passed the country’s first GMO labeling laws. However, neither law will take effect until other states pass similar legislation. Voters in Washington state and California have rejected mandatory labeling laws.
Large food companies generally oppose states’ efforts to pass mandatory labeling laws. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and its member companies have led costly, high-profile battles against the regulations in several states. In a press statement on the GMA’s website, president and CEO Pamela G. Bailey says the group will continue to oppose individual state legislation because a “50-state patchwork of GMO labeling laws” would be “confusing and costly to consumers.”
“GMA will advocate for a federal solution that will protect consumers by ensuring that the FDA, America’s leading food safety authority, sets national standards for the safety and labeling of products made with GMO ingredients,” Bailey says.
On its website, General Mills offers similar reasons for its own opposition to individual states’ attempts to pass mandatory labeling laws. The company says it supports a clear, consistent national standard for labeling non-GMO products, using the U.S. standard for organic food products as a model.
“Such a system would be substantially more reliable for consumers than differing state standards, and we think it makes much more sense than a patchwork of different labels that would vary from state-to-state,” General Mills’ website says.
Non-GMO Project spokeswoman Kinsman says a large number of other companies — typically smaller — have joined campaigns and organizations that support labeling, including GMO Inside, Just Label It! and Label GMOs. Supporters include Lundberg Family Farms, Pamela’s Products and many other gluten-free food companies.
“Many companies have been vocal about their support of labeling GMOs at the state and federal levels,” Kinsman says. “Support is shown through financial contributions, new policies launched, partnerships established and a variety of other strategies.”
Clearly the GMO debate won’t be settled anytime soon. GF
Mary Beth Schweigert is a newspaper reporter covering health, food and other lifestyle topics in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She has written extensively about GMOs for Gluten-Free Living in 2014, with three previous stories on the topic.