Will Non-GMO Foods Be Less Nutritious?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues

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.

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Comments (5)

  • susan

    |

    I am shocked at you view point with the safety of GM foods. How can you believe that the DNA of these plants are not altered. I think Dr. Shaklee would be very upset to hear you make these kinds of statements. There are many things that look safe or look the same as other nutrients but we know that they are NOT. How can you believe that these GM could possible be okay to use as a vitamin source and worse yet how can you possible use this to educate our Shaklee family.
    I am shocked.
    Susan Risbridger.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Susan,
      Don’t misunderstand me. I am no fan of GM foods. If you read my previous post “When is GMO Not GMO?” I clearly stated that the DNA was modified in GM foods, and that was a potential health risk. I also stated that proteins made from GM foods can contain alterations that could lead to food allergies. Those are both potential health concerns. I also stated that any GM food that encouraged heavy pesticide or herbicide use was an environmental concern.
      However, I am an educator. I simply pointed out that the proposed GMO labeling requirements go beyond what science can support. Sugars, oils and vitamins are chemically and biologically identical whether they come from GMO or Non-GMO sources – so they have no potential health concerns. If the sugars and oils come from GM plants that encourage pesticide & herbicide use, there are still potential environmental concerns. However, vitamins made from GM microorganisms have neither health or environmental concerns.
      The proposed GMO labeling regulations are well intentioned, but whenever you go beyond what science supports there are unintended consequences.

      Reply

  • Kim Edmondson

    |

    This article was very helpful. I recently saw a TED’s talk that was centered around the Paleo diet, but discussed aspects of GM and how it has influenced and even helped many of the foods we consume in our current diets. I agree with you that media and advertising have caused more confusion on these topics than helping to make the topic clear. Overall, I lean toward the practice of eating a variety of fresh foods and lean meats when they are in season and avoiding processed foods. It is disheartening to realize that the food industry is so consumed with making money, that good nutrition is all too often sacrificed on the altar of pesticides and preservatives and the cycle of good eating for good health is lost in the mix of producing more for less. I appreciate you clarifying more of the information surrounding GM and it’s positive/ negative effects. Thank you.

    Reply

  • Janet Sickmeier

    |

    Does this mean that some of Shaklee’s natural vitamins have GM nutrients in them? Or are you saying that most of the vitamins put into food, which I assumed were chemical vitamins like at One a Day’s, were what they used to ‘beef-up” the cereals, etc. with vitamins I further understood that those vitamins were inferior to what Shaklee makes – This article makes me wonder where Shaklee’s ‘natural’ vitamins come from. I would appreciate some clarification on this point.
    Thanks!

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Janet,

      I do not have direct knowledge as to whether Shaklee or any other company uses GM nutrients in their vitamins.
      I am an educator, and as an educator I try to get people to think outside of their box. In this article, and my previous “When is GMO not GMO” I’m trying to get people to think more carefully about what GMO means. More importantly I’m trying to get people to ask themselves “When is the distinction between GMO and non-GMO important, and when is it irrelevant?”

      Reply

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

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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