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

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    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

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    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

Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?

 

Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?

 

Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods

 

avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.

 

What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.

 

The Bottom Line

 

We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

For more details, 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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