Will Non-GMO Foods Be Less Nutritious?

The Unintended Consequences of the Proposed Non-GMO Labeling Laws

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

CerealPost Foods recently announced that their Grape Nuts cereal will be completely non-GMO. General Foods followed suit by announcing that their Original Cheerios will also be non-GMO. That’s good news, right?

Maybe, but it turns out that the new non-GMO Grape Nuts will no longer contain vitamins A, D, B12 or riboflavin, and the amount of riboflavin in a serving of Cheerios decreased from 25% of the daily recommended value (DV) to 2% of the DV.

The cereal manufacturers claim that their new cereals are more wholesome, but one nutrition expert said “The new products are arguably less healthy given their lower vitamin content.”

I’ve never been one to claim that throwing a few vitamins into a serving of cereal turns it into a nutrition powerhouse, but the decreased vitamin content of the new non-GMO cereals does raise a few questions.

  • Why were the vitamins removed?
  • Did it have anything to do with the cereals being non-GMO?
  • Does this mean that the non-GMO processed foods of the future will be less nutritious than the foods they replace?

The cereal manufacturers were mum when asked these questions, so we will need to rely on some scientific sleuthing and a bit of intuition to get the answers.

The Flaw in The Proposed Non-GMO Labeling Laws

I first discussed this topic a few months ago in a “Health Tips From The Professor” article titled “When is GMO Non-GMO?” I received a lot of irate comments from people who take every word on the non-GMO websites and videos as the gospel truth. (The professor has never been one to shy away from controversy when he sees claims that aren’t based on good science.)

However, I think my article was misunderstood by some of my readers, so let me review my conclusions briefly:

  • There are definitely environmental concerns around the widespread use of GM crops – especially those that allow heavy pesticide and herbicide usage.
  • There are potential health concerns related to the consumption of unprocessed GM foods and proteins derived from GM foods – although those heath concerns have been blown way out of proportion in the media.

If the proposed Non-GMO labeling laws stopped there, they would be scientifically justified. But they go one step further by requiring that processed foods labeled as non-GMO cannot contain any ingredient obtained from a GM source. There is no scientific justification for this.

  • Nutrients (sugars, oils & vitamins) derived from GM sources are chemically and biologically indistinguishable from those same nutrients derived from non-GMO sources.

The intentions of the proposed non-GMO labeling laws are good, but whenever you go beyond what good science supports there are often unintended consequences – such as the vitamin-depleted non-GMO cereals that the food manufacturers have just announced.

Will Non-GMO Foods Be Less Nutritious?

Non-GMOTo understand the answer to that question, let’s look at what probably happened to the vitamins in the non-GMO cereals.

In today’s world many vitamins are purified from genetically modified microorganisms – bacteria & yeast that have been modified to overproduce certain vitamins. In evaluating the significance of that statement, here are a few facts to consider:

1)     We have gotten vitamins from these sources for many years.

    • B vitamins have been obtained from yeast for at least a hundred years.
    • A significant portion of the vitamins we absorb on a daily basis are made by bacteria in our gut.

2)     The only difference today is that these microorganisms have been genetically modified to overproduce the vitamins.

3)     These are naturally sourced vitamins.

  • The microorganisms are the same ones that have provided these vitamins for generations.
  • The enzymes used by the microorganisms to make the vitamins are the same.

4)     There is no downside to the use of GM organisms as a source of natural vitamins.

    • There is no environmental risk from the use of these GM microorganisms. They don’t contain any dangerous genes that could wreak havoc if they escaped from the food processing plants.
    • Because the purified vitamins are indistinguishable from those obtained from non-GMO sources, there are also no health risks.

5)     The advantage of using these GM organisms is clear. It substantially lowers the cost of vitamins and allows them to be used in the mass market – for example, in popular breakfast cereals.

6)     Most food manufacturers can’t simply use non-GMO sourced vitamins and raise their prices.

    • A recent poll showed that 53% of Americans prefer non-GMO foods, but only 11% are willing to pay more for those foods

What Does the Future Hold?

Even though they are scientifically flawed, the proposed non-GMO labeling laws will probably become the law in several states in the near future. (Good science has never played much of a role in political decisions.)

Currently, there simply aren’t enough non-GMO vitamins available to supply the mass market – even if price were no concern. So, in the short term, many non-GMO processed foods are likely to be less nutritious than the foods they will replace – as we just saw with Grape Nuts and Cheerios.

However, most people feel that American ingenuity and the law of supply and demand will eventually result in a bigger supply of reasonable priced non-GMO vitamins. When that happens non-GMO processed foods will be just as nutritious as the older GM versions.

However, at this point nobody knows how long that will take.

The Bottom Line:

1)     There is a scientific basis for environmental and potential health concerns regarding genetically modified whole foods and the protein extracted from these foods.

2)     However, proposed non-GMO labeling laws would require that a processed food be labeled as genetically modified if it contains any nutrient purified from a genetically modified organism.

3)     There is no scientific justification for this requirement. Purified vitamins from GM and non-GM microorganisms are chemically and biologically indistinguishable. Furthermore, the GM microorganisms used to produce the vitamins pose no environmental or health risks.

4)     Non-GMO vitamins (vitamins prepared from non-GMO microorganisms) are currently in short supply and are very expensive compared to vitamins prepared from GM microorganisms.

5)     Consequently, the unintended consequence of these proposed non-GMO labeling laws will likely be that many of the new non-GMO processed foods will contain fewer vitamins and, therefore, will be less nutritious than the foods they replace – at least in the short term. The new non-GMO Grape Nuts and Cheerios may be just the tip of the iceberg.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Should GMO Labeling Be Required For All Food Ingredients?

When Is GMO Not GMO?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

GMO-freeI’m probably going to get lots of hate mail for this week’s “Health Tips from the Professor” because I’m finally going to tackle the GMO controversy.

You see, the GMO controversy is very much like Washington politics. On one side of the aisle, you have the people who are absolutely convinced that anything GMO is terrible. On the other side of the aisle, you have people who are absolutely convinced that there are no problems with GMO foods. And both sides are convinced that their opponents have absolutely nothing of intelligence to say on the topic.

So almost anything I say about GMO is bound to offend somebody. But nobody ever accused me of being timid, so let’s get started.

What Are The Health Risks Of Genetically Modified Foods?

I’m going to start with the supposed health risks of GMO foods because that’s my area of greatest expertise, and I’m going to evaluate those health risks from the viewpoint of a card-carrying biochemist. I’ve seen the scary pictures and alarming statements posted on many anti-GMO web sites, but objective evidence that genetically modified foods are harmful to humans is underwhelming at present.

Modifications to DNA And Health Risks

Let’s start at the beginning. Genetic modification occurs in the DNA, and on that basis GMO foods have some potential, but yet unproven, risks. Let me give you an example:

  • Some genetically modified foods carry genes for naturally occurring pesticides so that if bugs try to eat the leaves of those plants they will die.
  • When we eat foods occasionally small pieces of their DNA will find their way into our intestinal track.
  • We have bacteria in our intestinal tracts that excel at picking up small pieces of DNA and inserting them into their genome.
  • So it is theoretically possible that those bacteria might start producing in our intestines the same pesticides produced by the genetically modified foods we ate.

It is an interesting idea, but to my knowledge one that has not yet been shown to have actually occurred in a human being.

Modifications to Proteins And Health Risks

A more likely risk comes from the proteins contained in genetically modified foods:

  • Genetic modifications in the DNA result in the production of modified proteins, so GMO foods, GMO protein powders and foods made from GMO protein sources can be a source of unsuspected food allergies.
  • Unfortunately, food allergies, especially those from genetically modified protein sources, are very difficult to quantify, so we have no good data on how big a problem this actually is.

However, it would be very surprising if there weren’t some individuals with food allergies to genetically modified proteins.

When Is GMO Not GMO?

Many of the GMO opponents take it one step further and want to label as GMO any food or supplement that contains any ingredient made from a genetically modified food. This is where the science is clearly on the other side of the aisle. With respect to purified sugars, purified oils, vitamins and other purified nutrients obtained from foods there is no difference between GMO and non-GMO because these purified nutrients contain neither DNA nor protein.

 Should GMO Labeling Be Required For All Food Ingredients?

For the most part, it isn’t even possible for most manufacturers to produce foods or supplements with all non-GMO ingredients. When the whole GMO issue first entered public awareness the food industry was guided by the science. It made good business sense for them to create a capacity, a pipeline if you will, to make sure that non-GMO protein sources were available to meet the market demand for companies that wanted to make non-GMO protein products for this new GMO-adverse market.

But, nobody anticipated the emotional demand for non-GMO sugars, oils and the like. There was no scientific basis for that demand, so none of the suppliers created the capacity to meet that demand. Currently there is only enough of those kinds of non-GMO ingredients to meet the needs of the bit players in the market. There simply aren’t enough of those ingredients to satisfy the requirements of any manufacturer who deals in the mass market. That, for example, is the reason big players in the market lobbied against the recent California and Washington State propositions that would have required a food product to be labeled GMO if any ingredient in the food was GMO.

Genetically Modified Foods And The Environment

Now that I have managed to alienate almost everyone, I should point out that there are some non-health issues around GMO foods.

  • The biggest issue is that many of the genetically modified foods contain modifications that make them resistant to herbicides, and that encourages overuse of those herbicides with the resultant pollution of air, soil, and water.
  • Another concern is that the increasing reliance on genetically modified food crops is leading to a decrease in the genetic diversity of those crops, which could make them more susceptible to a new virus or pest in the future. This is a theoretical concern, but there is historical precedence for believing that it could happen.
  • Finally, laws that prevent subsistent farmers from saving their own seed for next season’s planting is a major concern in Third World countries. But, that is more an issue of corporate greed than it is of genetic modification.

The Bottom Line:

What is the take-home lesson for you?

From a health perspective:

  • Genetically modified proteins are likely to be a food allergy risk for some people, but we have no good data on how many people are affected by this kind of food allergy
  • Genetically modified DNA is a theoretical concern because of the ability of intestinal bacteria to pick up pieces of DNA, but we have no evidence at present that this has actually ever caused a problem in people.
  • With respect to sugars, oils, and other nutrients extracted from foods it makes no difference whether the food was GMO or non-GMO

From an environmental perspective:

  • Genetic modifications leading to herbicide resistance are a significant environmental concern because it encourages overuse of herbicides.
  • Lack of genetic diversity from the overuse of GMO food crops is a theoretical concern, but one with historical precedence.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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