Presently, soybean, corn, canola and cotton are the genetically engineered (GMO) crop species that dominate the ingredient market, with the first three having made their way into an increasing number of foods and beverages. The traits that typically have been genetically modified in those plants tend to be directed toward a narrow range of biological stresses — mostly pest resistance and herbicide tolerance.
It seems, however, that the drive to manipulate is only beginning. According to the article “Next biotech plants: New traits, crops, developers and technologies for addressing global challenges,” published last February in Critical Reviews in Biotechnology, numerous GMO techniques are emerging that have the potential to shape a wide range of crop varieties with combined traits that promise to meet future global food challenges.
The anticipated market release for the next generation of biotech plants depends on both on the progress of laboratory and field research and development and public acceptance of GMO foods. While, as was reported in the article, “regulatory constraints, including environmental and health impact assessments, have increased significantly in the past decades, delaying approvals and increasing their costs,” the techniques are admittedly powerful, and the products demonstrably impactful to the environment.
It is the mistrust of this power and potential impact that is concurrently increasing the demand for products that are non-GMO — and labeled as such.
But while the science, safety and regulatory issues regarding GMOs can be contentious if not controversial, the demand for non-GMOs is inescapable and gathering momentum. Whole Foods has committed to labeling all GMOs by 2018 in U.S. and Canadian stores, and in fact has already started this labeling. The Non-GMO Project has identified more than 3,200 supporting retailers anticipating an upsurge of non-GMO foods.
“Global product launch activity tracked by Innova Market Insights with a GMO-free positioning increased by 45 percent in 2014 from 2013, and represented 3.3 percent of all product launches tracked in 2014, up from 2.4 percent in 2013,” says Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Innova Market Insights. “In 2014, the U.S. was the leading country for GMO-free product launch activity tracked and was responsible for just over one third of product launches, followed by Ukraine (16.2 percent), Russia (5.8 percent) and the U.K. (5.1 percent).”
Both influencing as well as facilitating non-GMO product launches is the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization that offers third-party verification and labeling for GMO-free foods and products in North America. The Non-GMO Project boasts more than 27,000 verified products from 1,500 brands. Non-GMO verified foods receive a label (much like a USDA organic certification label) that certifies the product has met the non-GMO standard. Since verification occurs at the ingredient level, and not the product level (which would be inaccurate), manufacturers must secure non-GMO verified ingredients.
On the hunt
“Many crops, such as potatoes, are still predominately non-GMO in the U.S.A. In those cases, manufacturers have an easier job keeping their product lines GMO-free," says Mike Wargocki, director of operations at Penford Food Ingredients, Centennial, Colo. (which is now a part of Ingredion).
Whereas, "crops like corn require manufacturers to work with farmers all the way through the process to ensure product traceability … and setting the proper cleanout, separation, and transition programs within a facility so the non-GMO purity is maintained,” he adds.
The non-GMO project classifies ingredients to be verified as “high risk for GMO” those that are currently in commercial production, such as alfalfa, canola, corn, soy, papaya, sugar beets, zucchini and yellow summer squash; and as “monitored risk,” those suspected of contamination because of genetically modified relatives in commercial production where cross-pollination is possible. These include: chard, table beets, rutabaga, kale, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, turnip, acorn squash, flax, rice and wheat.
There currently are no strains of genetically modified wheat available commercially in the U.S. Other grains for which there are no commercial GMO strains include: oats, rye, barley, buckwheat, bulgur, spelt, triticale and “ancient grains,” such as amaranth, quinoa, millet, kamut, teff, einkorn, farro and sorghum.
“There has been non-GMO interest within the natural and clean label segment,” says Jennifer Stephens, director of marketing for Fiberstar Inc., River Falls, Wis. “Most of these applications are snacks, beverages, baked goods and dairy.”
Fiberstar supplies Citri-Fi, an all-natural, non-GMO fiber derived from citrus pulp that provides multiple benefits in baked goods such as moisture retention, egg replacement, improved shelf life and fat and oil replacement. It is also acts as a thickener for dairy products, contributes to fat reduction and natural emulsifying stabilization.
“The snack category is a hot area right now due to meal replacement, convenience and nutritional enhancement drivers,” adds Stephens. “The other area with potential is breakfast cereals. Breakfast is the one eating occasion when consumers connect eating nutritiously to a good product, so they are more cognizant about what they are purchasing.”
Stephens further notes how manufacturers are gauging the avoidance of GMOs while creatively meeting the strong consumer demand. “While much of this interest [in non-GMO foods] is due to new product development efforts, most of the non-GMO ingredient needs still reside in the natural and clean label food segments. The major food companies are exploring non-GMO product development opportunities and limiting them to smaller SKUs. They will continue to monitor the consumer demand and regulations for direction.”
Avoiding the unavoidable
Still, in some cases, U.S. manufacturers face challenges in meeting these non-GMO needs. For example, the popularity of soy milk has greatly increased the demand for both non-GMO and organic soybeans. Organic ingredients are automatically non-GMO, as organic certification of a product includes non-GMO sources.
However, non-GMO does not imply organic sources. Conventional ingredients can be non-GMO sourced. WhiteWave, the leading manufacturer of soy milk and recently almond milk (under the Silk brand), has committed to the use of non-GMO soy, even though 93 percent of the soy crop is from GMO soy crops.
“Without a doubt, the demand for non-GMO and organic soybeans continues to head north,” says Scott Desing, chief business development officer for Rock City, Ill.-based Devansoy Inc. “Specific to the refrigerated soymilk presence here in North America, the driver for that private label business is ‘organic,’ which means that those soybeans must be non-GMO.
"But GMO soybeans are still the majority produced by the American farmer," he continues. "Still, the increased demands from the consumer and the raw material suppliers have led to a trend of increased production acres of the non-GMO soybean varieties.”
Devansoy provides a variety of both conventional non-GMO and organic soy ingredients, including liquid soy concentrates, soy powders and flours. All use extraction methods that support all-natural and organic labeling.
“The growth and exposure of these manufacturing and consumption segments are a direct result of a clear understanding that products made with non-GMO, organic and hexane-free soy protein ingredients fulfill those respective needs and wants of health-conscious consumers,” says Desing.
Cargill Inc., Wayzata, Minn., which joined forces with BASF Plant Science several years ago to develop EPA/DHA canola oil from modified plants, recently developed a soybean oil produced from identity-preserved (IdP), conventionally-bred — that is, non-GMO — soybeans. That allows customers interested in exploring a non-GMO option to claim such on their product label.
According to Ethan Theis, food ingredients commercial manager at Cargill, the oil is refined in Cargill’s Des Moines, Iowa, plant in a process certified by SGS (a global inspection, verification, testing and certification company) to develop an IdP non-GMO product.
“Developing IdP soybean oil processed from non-GMO soybeans is an intricate process, from procuring a dedicated supply of soybeans to ensuring processes for storage, handling, processing and refining to avoid co-mingling with bioengineered crops,” says Theis.
Alex Slichter, Cargill’s marketing manager, points to the company’s similar efforts regarding corn, especially as concerns corn syrup. “Cargill is producing corn syrup made from non-GMO corn in 2015 with plans to expand in 2016,” he explains. “But capacity and corn availability are [still] limited, and one customer already has purchased a significant portion of the available supply.”
Slichter notes that such sweeteners have become one of the most in-demand non-GMO ingredients in food production, and therefore can sometimes be the most difficult for processors to procure. "The U.S. corn crop is only about 7 percent non-GMO and a small fraction of that is fully identity preserved to meet our customer’s specifications,” he says.
Slichter goes on to explain that the plant manufacturing its non-GMO corn syrup also produces a significant quantity of conventional product. “To produce a relatively small volume was akin to turning a battleship on a dime. We developed a plan to prepare the plant for non-GMO, flush the product through until the common product was no longer present, and begin making product for our customer.” He adds that the process includes measures to ensure the corn syrup isn’t co-mingled with other products, isn’t shipped through the company’s normal distribution channels and is kept in its own, isolated holding area.
With ingredient makers “pulling out all stops” to meet the demand for non-GMO products, it’s likely a few bumps will appear in the road. But with such efforts supporting the food product developers, it’s possible mandated labeling of GMOs will become moot when there is so much value in labeling products as GMO-free.