After the passing of the GMO labeling bill in 2016, which requires processors to start labeling for the presence of GMOs in mid-2018, the fervor over genetic modification isn't going away. GMOs are created using gene-splicing techniques, which allow DNA from one species to be injected into another species in a lab. In theory, they're more environmentally friendly because they conserve water, soil, and energy, and they increase yields. The FDA and the science community have declared them safe.
Nevertheless, more products are sporting or seeking a non-GMO label claim. Annual sales of non-GMO certified products increased from $349 million in 2010 to more than $19 billion as of March 2016, according to Packaged Facts (www.packagedfacts.com), Rockville, Md. Demand is expected to grow 12 percent annually through 2018.
Crops that have the highest likelihood of containing GMOs are alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beet, yellow summer squash and zucchini, according to the Non-GMO Project (www.nongmoproject.org), Bellingham, Wash., which independently verifies that products are GMO-free. As a result of the widespread use of corn and soy as ingredients, it's estimated GMOs are present in 70 to 80 percent of the foods consumed in the U.S. today – as well as most livestock feed.
Regardless of all the scientific evidence, GMO foods make the general public a bit apprehensive and skeptical. People want to know where their food comes from, and the "seismic shift" in American eating habits shows the concerns about genetically modified foods and consumers' trust in organic ones. Thus, demand for non-GMOs is gathering momentum.
Non-GMO claims are gaining traction on food and beverage labels, according to Chicago-based Mintel Group (www.mintel.com). The research firm's Global New Products Database tracked 15.7 percent of new U.S. food and beverage products making non-GMO claims in 2015, versus 2.8 percent in 2012. Interest in GMO-free foods among all consumers (37 percent) outweighs interest in foods free of soy (22 percent), nuts/peanuts (20 percent) and eggs (17 percent).
The Non-GMO Project has a tolerance level of genetic modification of less than 0.9 percent, the same as European Union countries. Certifying at least 20,000 products so far, the organization requires ongoing testing of all at-risk ingredients — any ingredient being grown commercially in GMO form must be tested prior to use in a verified product. Verification also involves facility inspections and annual audits to ensure a company meets the highest standards currently available for GMO avoidance.
Thousands of retailers, ingredient suppliers and food and beverage manufacturers have earned Non-GMO Project certification, and more earn it every day. The non-profit group has stated that determining the safety of GMO foods requires studies "spanning generations."
Ingredient suppliers are removing them.
Food developers also are taking a more critical look at individual non-GMO ingredients. As a result, ingredient suppliers of everything from probiotics to spices are acquiring Non-GMO Project verification.
The first wave of certifications from the Non-GMO Project was for finished food products, but in the past year or two ingredient suppliers are flooding the group with verification requests.
"The proper labeling of GMOs is in the spotlight," observes Mike Bush, president of Ganeden Inc. (www.ganedenprobiotics.com), Cleveland, which became the first probiotic supplier to meet Non-GMO Project requirements for its probiotic strain GanedenBC³°.
Ingredion Inc. (www.ingredion.us), which deals in many corn-based ingredients, has worked particularly hard at certification. In January, the Westchester, Ill.-based company announced Non-GMO Project certification for nine products in its Novation Prima, Novation Endura, Ultra-Crisp and Globe brands of sweeteners, starches, texturizing and nutrition products, bringing its total non-GMO ingredients to 57.
"Receiving the additional Non-GMO Project verification adds another layer of trust to our long non-GMO track record and broad portfolio of ingredients," said Igor Playner, vice president of innovation and strategy for Ingredion North America. "As consumer demand grows, manufacturers can respond with products made from our Non-GMO Project Verified ingredient solutions that meet demand for clean and simple labels and deliver on the sensory experience."
They're not alone. Bunge North America (www.bungenorthamerica.com), St. Louis, obtained its first Non-GMO Project Verification for milled corn ingredients in 2016, followed by ancient grains millet, sorghum and quinoa.
The company's Non-GMO Project Verified milled corn ingredients include grits, meals, flours and whole grains that may be used in cereals, savory snacks, baked goods and breading/batters. Its Whole Harvest brand of canola and soybean oils are also Non-GMO Project Verified, and it's pursuing verification for its rice, gluten-free breading, ancient grains and puffed and expanded snacks. The company’s Crete, Neb., facility is Non-GMO Project Verified, and a dry corn mill in Danville, Ill., considered the world’s largest, is currently undergoing project verification.
Bunge contracts with farmers for non-bioengineered/non-GMO acreage, says Mark Stavro, senior director of marketing. "Some of our long-standing milled ingredients, like rice and rice panko, are naturally non-GMO, followed by ancient grains — millet, sorghum and quinoa. We also have USDA-certified organic corn products."
While there was lively debate over the subject, all organic products must also be GMO-free.
Wheat is a non-GMO grain, states Don Trouba, marketing director at Ardent Mills (www.ardentmills.com), Denver. "And we put that statement on packaging, just to clear up any misconceptions. Consumers think wheat is genetically modified, and it's not."
Cargill (www.cargill.com), Wayzata, Minn., also began participating in the Non-GMO Project Verified program last year with erythritol and Clear Valley and IngreVita oils. Some of its other ingredients are expected to earn verification soon, confirms Mike Wagner, managing director for Cargill Starches and Sweeteners North America.
Transparency, traceability are key
Since its founding in 2004, Kind Snacks (www.kindsnacks.com), New York, has sourced non-genetically engineered ingredients, notes Stephanie Perruzza, Kind's registered dietitian and health and wellness specialist. "Our Healthy Grains, breakfast bars and Pressed by Kind lines are verified by the Non-GMO Project, and the seal is found on most of our packaging," she says. "We're currently updating our packaging with the seal, and some of our other snacks are pending Non-GMO Project verification."
For more than 20 years, WhiteWave Foods' Horizon Organic brand (www.horizon.com) has worked with nearly 700 family farms nationwide to ensure its milk is organic, and therefore non-GMO. With so much soy being genetically engineered, certified soy is harder to find. But the company's Silk and So Delicious lines of plant-based "dairy" products are either verified by or enrolled in the Non-GMO Project, as are several Vega products, says Nate Meadows, director of procurement commodities.
"Some non-GMO ingredients are readily available, but [for others] availability really depends on the ingredient needed," says Mike Ferry, WhiteWave president. "We partner with suppliers willing to work with us and support non-GMO alternatives."
Visiting trade shows is a good way to find new suppliers and ingredient offerings, he adds. The sourcing team cultivates relationships with non-GMO sources, and some suppliers proactively approach WhiteWave.
Other companies have successfully stopped using GMO ingredients. Jim St. John, master chocolatier and vice president of chocolate product development at Hershey (www.hersheys.com), Hershey, Pa., says it was fairly easy to remove GMOs in its eponymous milk chocolate brand and Hershey Kisses.
Six of Nestle's Outshine frozen fruit bars so far are made without GMOs, and others are on the way.
Back to WhiteWave: Any day now, the company will become part of Danone (the acquisition is in its final phases). The French firm's commitment to non-GMO ingredients is just as strong, and its Dannon USA unit promised to declare GMOs on its labels by December 2017. But Dannon USA's aversion to GMOs extends to the grain being fed cows. Dannon committed early last year "to bring all products from three flagship brands (Dannon, Oikos and Danimals) towards the use of fewer and more natural ingredients that are not synthetic and non-GMO. Importantly, Dannon also commits that for these brands the feed of its farmers’ cows will be non-GMO within a transition period of three years. The ambition is to evolve the remaining brands over time."
Similarly, Ben & Jerry's (www.benjerry.com), South Burlington, Vt., promised to remove all GMO ingredients from its ice cream but also pledged to work with its farmer-suppliers. "Our dairy and egg suppliers still use conventional animal feeds that contain GMO grains. We are actively seeking cost-effective options for farmers within our supply chain to convert to non-GMO animal feed."
The company relies primarily on traceability of ingredients through the supply chain back to a non-GMO seed. Its suppliers must take appropriate measures to segregate GMO and non-GMO materials or finished products in their production facilities "at all times and ensure proper cleaning measures are employed."
Sourcing non-GMO ingredients can be a challenge in terms of pricing and other factors. Many of our sources agree, non-GMO ingredients, like organic ones, often command higher prices. With the July 2018 labeling mandate looming, it will be expensive enough for large companies to convert to non-GMO ingredients or wear that scarlet letter on their packages. The choice may be even tougher for small companies.
Ellia Kassoff, CEO of Leaf Brands, Newport Beach, Calif., voiced concern last year to the Associated Press about how the public will react to labels that say its food has GMOs. "Sometimes it’s hard to acquire non-GMO ingredients and sell a product at a price where consumers will buy it," Kassoff said. Leaf makes Hydrox cookies and various candies. The labeling law could make small-company products cost more than those of their bigger competitors, summarized Kassoff.
But as demand soars, supply – of both finished products and ingredients – is similarly growing by leaps and bounds. With many non-GMO ingredients already available and more in the certification pipeline, ingredient prices should come down.