A non-Frankenfood Cheerios may not make much of a difference to consumers’ health, but it could deliver some benefits to General Mills’ bottom line.
Opponents of genetically modified foods cheered the cereal maker’s announcement Thursday that its original flavor Cheerios now is made without GMOs and will be on store shelves soon.
While General Mills is appealing to some Americans’ growing anxiety about ingesting genetically modified ingredients in their foods, it’s a move that has more to do with marketing than with well-being, experts said, similar to the gluten-free trend.
To begin with, Original Cheerios had very little genetically modified content. Oats, the main ingredient, aren’t a genetically modified crop, although the cornstarch and sugar used in them were genetically modified. There’s only one gram of sugar per serving of Cheerios, which is why it’s a favorite among parents as toddlers’ first finger food.
“The formula for original Cheerios hasn’t changed … we just made some changes in our sourcing,” said company spokesman Mike Siemienas. “We believe that consumers will embrace this.” Siemienas said the company is using non-GMO corn and sugar, but that it has no plans to take genetically modified ingredients out of other varieties of Cheerios, which have more sugar and corn in them.
“I think it's totally a marketing move,” said David Just, professor of applied economics and director of the Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. “They’re playing to an audience that, sort of bluntly, has an irrational fear of GMOs,” he said.
Genetically modified foods have a gene from another species physically inserted into their DNA. Usually, it’s to make the food easier to farm – with genes that make a plant resistant to weedkillers, for instance, or with a gene from bacteria that helps plants resist pests without the use of weedkillers. Many staples in the U.S., such as corn and soy beans, contain GMOs.
So far, GM foods sold in the U.S. are considered safe, the Food and Drug Administration says. “The foods we have evaluated through the consultation process have not been more likely to cause an allergic or toxic reaction than foods from traditionally bred plants,” it says.
The World Health Organization agrees. “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health,” it says. “In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”
In Europe, where there has been a louder outcry against GMOs, the European Union has stipulated that all foods containing genetically modified material be tested and labeled. Some European countries have gone a step further and banned them.
Still, public perception about GMOs in the U.S. probably forced General Mills’ hand.
“Consumers have really latched on to this Cheerios campaign,” said Elizabeth O’Connell, campaigns director of environmental nonprofit Green America, which launched a campaign in November 2012 for non-GMO Cheerios. “[General Mills] probably wanted to make the change partly for marketing reasons,” she said. On its website, Green America said it garnered some 40,000 Facebook posts in support of the initiative.
Other food companies have also addressed the issue. Whole Foods Market said it will label all items containing genetically modified ingredients by 2018. Ben & Jerry’s said it will label its flavors that include GMOs by the end of this year — although the ice cream brand also came under fire from anti-GMO groups alleging that its parent company, Unilever, opposed California’s Proposition 37, a ballot measure that would have required labeling GMO ingredients and was defeated in November 2012. A similar measure to require labeling narrowly failed in Washington state last year.
Although California's Proposition 37 didn’t pass, the media coverage it got led to more awareness of — and concern about — GMO ingredients, said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at market research firm the NPD Group. “The political landscape ratcheted up the discussion,” he said.
An NPD survey last August found that 55 percent of consumers are concerned about GMOs in foods causing a health hazard, up more than 10 percentage points since the company began tracking it in 2002. “This really is no surprise that a major marketer would announce something about [going] GMO-free just because the percent of the population that expresses concern at some level is very high,” Balzer said.
Industry experts say the anti-GMO push is similar to the gluten-free craze — an NPD Group survey last year found that almost one-third of Americans said they were trying to cut back on gluten in their diet, and the market researchers at Packaged Facts predicted in 2012 that the gluten-free food category will be a $6.6 billion business by 2017.
To date, the non-GMO market is smaller, but it’s growing fast, according to Packaged Facts. In the United States, the company predicts a roughly 13 percent year-over-year increase in the sale of non-GMO foods, with the category making up around 30 percent of food and beverage sales by 2017, for a total of $264 billion.
NBC News health reporter Maggie Fox contributed to this report.