Cheerios went non-GMO early this year. So did Grape-Nuts. How long will it be before bakers start singing the same song? Some already do, having followed this tune for years. Others are just now hearing the drumbeat but can’t yet discern the melody.

Why mention actions taken by breakfast cereal processors General Mills and Post Foods? In the grain-based foods world, this market segment often acts as the bellwether of industry-altering trends. That was certainly the case when the Kellogg Company put the first health claim on packages of ready-to-eat cereal in 1983. In less than a decade — a mere blink of the eye in regulatory time — the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 became law.

Until recently, foods and food ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have not been a public policy issue in the US like they have in Europe, Asia and Africa. Although American consumers have not voiced much concern about food biotech in the past, attitudes are changing.

A study announced in December by The NPD Group, Port Washington, NY, found more than half of US consumers expressing some level of concern about GMOs. But when asked to describe GMOs, many shoppers were unclear about them. Would consumers pay more for non-GMO? The same study found two-thirds of primary grocery shoppers will not, but specialty store shoppers will. Harry Balzer, NPD’s chief industry analyst, said, “GMOs have been an issue for some time now. I expect the market to follow these concerns.”

Dancing to the beat

Meanwhile, Whole Foods Market upped the ante. The Austin, TX-based grocery chain announced in March 2013 that it would require GMO labeling on all products in its US and Canadian stores by 2018. The company started putting its 365 Everyday Value line through non-GMO certification in 2009. Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods, described the move as a means for making food content more transparent to consumers.

Certainly, the already raised voices of GMO’s critics have been getting louder recently, arguing health and environmental concerns. They also stand strongly on consumers’ “right to know” what’s in their foods.

In December, Connecticut became the first state to enact a GMO-labeling law, but its rules won’t go into effect unless other Northeast states adopt similar provisions. In January, Maine became the second state to do so, also with the provision that contiguous states pass such labeling laws before it can start enforcing its rules.

Recent attempts in California and Washington to require GMO labeling on consumer foods failed, but supporters remain undaunted. Legislation and ballot initiatives on this matter are active in 30 states, and federal bills to mandate such labeling were introduced in the House and Senate during April 2013.

Labeling opponents — food industry and farm groups — are also vocal about the benefits biotech brings. They cite lower usage of synthetic pesticides and herbicides, savings in labor and energy from low- and no-till cultivation, and improved yield for a better farm economy. A Feb. 2 New York Times op-ed piece, “We need GMO wheat,” raised these agronomic issues in advocating for bioengineered wheat, which has yet to see commercialization.

By any measure, public discussion of GMOs in the American food supply continues to rise, and leading food industry associations are climbing on board the bandwagon by adopting positions favoring voluntary labeling of these materials.

What does “going non-GMO” mean to formulators? In the absence of regulation, all matters are discretionary. Here’s a review of the issues and concerns involved.

GMOs are what, exactly?

The 20th century saw enormous advances in plant and animal breeding through advanced biotechnology. By using recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (rDNA), scientists could alter genetic coding to introduce into an organism traits previously not found in its genome or species. In contrast, conventional methods, used since ancient times, develop new plant traits by selecting for characteristics and genes present in one line of a genome or species and transferring it to another line by cross-breeding or hybridization.

Results of the rDNA method are variously described as “bioengineered” (biotech), “genetically engineered” (GE) or “genetically modified” (GM) materials. Over the years, the term “genetically modified organism,” or GMO, has been widely favored over other wordings. The intent is to differentiate such plants and animals from “conventionally bred” crops.

The first GE crops were planted commercially in 1994, and foods made from GE microbial and plant sources have been in the US food supply for more than 20 years, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The first food ingredient was an enzyme derived from a GE microbe for cheese manufacturing.

In the US today, GE soybeans account for 93% of all plantings, and GE corn represents 88% of the crop. Other GE food crops include canola, sugar beets, summer squash and zucchini. Although the US is most associated with GM crops, other countries with significant GE acreage are Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada. Altogether, these crops grow in 30 countries on 420 million acres, about 10% of the world’s agricultural fields. Even Europe, the center of resistance to these crops, plants GE varieties, but only two: corn and potatoes.

Most of the time, application of bioengineering to crops involves herbicide and disease resistance, drought tolerance and yield improvement. “Most GE crops are used as sources of food ingredients and as animal feed,” said Dennis Keefe, PhD, director of FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety. “A few plants have been engineered for nutritional traits,” he noted, citing development of soybeans with increased amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated fatty acid associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.

Ingredients derived from GE plants and microorganisms are also at issue. According to The Non-GMO Project, a certifying group headquartered at Bellingham, WA, these can include amino acids, aspartame, ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbate, vitamin C, citric acid, sodium citrate, ethanol, flavorings (both natural and artificial), high-fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, lactic acid, maltodextrins, molasses, monosodium glutamate, sucrose, textured vegetable protein, xanthan gum, vitamins and yeast products.

The alternative is …

An estimated 80% of foods sold in the US contain GMOs. So, what options exist for formulating foods without them? The Non-GMO Sourcebook, a buyer’s guide published by Evergreen Publishing, Fairfield, IA, indicated that currently there are no GMO varieties being grown of barley, edible beans, flax, oats, peas, rice, spelt, sunflowers and wheat.

Also, non-GE varieties of corn, soy and canola are available in commercial quantities and industrial ingredients. Palm, sunflower and safflower are non-GMO. All certified-organic crops and ingredients are free of biotech. The so-called ancient grains — amaranth, buckwheat, farro, Kamut, millet, quinoa, sorghum, spelt and teff, with rye and oats often included, too — are all non-GMO as are most of the world’s traditional crops and small grains.

In making its announcement about taking Cheerios GMO-free, General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, observed that oats, the cereal’s main ingredient, are not bioengineered. The change applies only to the breakfast cereal’s original flavor and will chiefly involve sourcing and handling of other ingredients, such as replacing beet sugar with cane sugar and also using corn starch from non-GE corn varieties.

“The simple and unique nature of our product made it possible to label original Cheerios as not being made with genetically modified ingredients,” General Mills stated. In its announcement, the company said it opposes state-by-state labeling laws and supports a national standard for labeling bioengineered products.

When it comes to sourcing, formulators seeking organic-certified food ingredients have a plethora of choices. Easily 50 such companies listed organic bakery ingredients in the annual Baking Directory & Buyer’s Guide published by Baking & Snack and in the affiliated esource, a Web-based buyers’ guide. Add suppliers of non-GMO bakery ingredients to the tally, and numbers reach more than 100 sources. In just the past few months, suppliers announced non-GMO ingredients as diverse as pea protein, erythritol and fruit flavors.

Regulations vs. guidance

FDA and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) share responsibility for assuring the safety of GE plants when used as human foods and animal feeds. Established in 1992, this charge covers all foods derived from all new plant varieties, including those developed using rDNA technology. FDA regulates foods made from GE crops, while USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is tasked with protecting agriculture from pests and disease, makes sure that new GE plants pose no pest risk to other plants. If a bioengineered food introduces a pesticidal substance, also known as a plant-incorporated protectant, or PIP, then the food is subject to review by the Environmental Protection Agency, too.

As part of its responsibility to regulate foods, FDA advises developers of GE plants and microorganisms and the ingredients derived from them to consult with the agency before marketing them. Safety assessments are required before such materials are released for commercialization. As of May 2013, FDA completed 96 consultations on GE crops. (See for a list of these consultations.)

In Europe, foods and food ingredients made from crops developed with modern biotechnology techniques are required to be labeled as such. In the US, Congress has not passed a law requiring food containing GMOs to report that presence on packaging. Yet federal regulations do apply to foods produced using biotechnology. Section 403(i) of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act concerns the potential for misbranding, defined by FDA as false or misleading labels. It applies to all foods as well as those derived through biotech. This section requires each food to bear a common or usual name or an appropriately descriptive term. Another section, 201(n), of the same law required the food label to reveal all material facts about the food.

Without actual regulation covering GMO declarations, FDA did issue guidance for voluntary labeling. In January 2001, FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), which writes labeling rules, proposed “Guidance for Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not Been Developed Using Bioengineering.” Guidance documents are nonbinding and cannot be used to force changes.

The draft guidelines provided suggested language for describing foods developed using bioengineering. Phrases suitable for food labels included “Genetically engineered” or “This product contains _____ that was produced using biotechnology” and similar statements.

In May 2013, FDA verified its position supporting voluntary labeling. Writing in “FDA’s Role in Regulating Safety of FE Foods,” a consumer update on its website,, the agency stated, “Many consumers are interested in knowing whether the food they serve their families is produced using genetic engineering. Food manufacturers may indicate through voluntary labeling whether foods have or have not been developed through genetic engineering, provided that such labeling is not misleading. FDA supports such voluntary labeling.”

The meaning of ‘free’

In international trade, shipments of grain are considered free of GMOs if their assays show no more than 0.9% GMO content. In comparison, FDA regulations allow a declaration of “0 g trans fat” in the Nutrition Facts panel on food packaging when it is present at less than 0.5 g per serving, or 1.7% of a 1-oz (28.35-g) serving size. FDA’s threshold for labeling a product as gluten-free is 20 ppm, or 0.002% of the product’s weight.

In food labeling regulations, FDA closely defines the word “free” with specific amounts per serving for calories (less than 5 Cal), total fat (less than 0.5 g), saturated fat (less than 0.5 g), cholesterol (less than 2 mg), sodium (less than 5 mg) and sugars (less than 0.5 g).

However, FDA’s proposed guidelines for voluntary GMO labeling clearly discouraged “free from” statements, including “GMO free” and “not genetically modified.” CFSAN reasoned that “free” is usually interpreted by consumers to mean “zero,” when such certainty is not scientifically possible. It’s likely the agency would consider such statements to be misbranding.

Besides the problem of establishing a threshold to define “free,” there’s also the matter of general consumer knowledge. “Data indicate that consumers do not have a good understanding that essentially all food crops have been genetically modified and that bioengineering technology is only one of a number of technologies used to genetically modify crops,” FDA wrote in its proposed guidance.

Advocates of GMO labeling, specifically The Non-GMO Project, argue that over the past decade, consumers have gained a greater understanding of biotech and food breeding practices and are more aware of the term GMO.

CFSAN has yet to finalize its guidance document on GMO labeling. In the 2-year plan of program priorities announced by center in September 2013, it listed “improve public health indicators through better nutrition and dietary ­choices” as one of its six program goals. Within this goal was section 4.1.11 declaring the center’s intent to “publish final guidance to help manufacturers who wish to voluntarily label their foods as being made with our without the use of bioengineered ingredients.”

There has yet been no further public action on GMO labeling. In May 2013, FDA reported it had received two citizen petitions requesting that it change its position on labeling of GE foods. It stated it was currently reviewing those petitions and considering the issues presented.

Verify, certify, label

Given that no official rules govern GMO labeling, food producers must seek independent verification of ingredient content and product claims. Stepping into the breach are a handful of GMO-specific certification agencies, about a dozen organic certification organizations and more than two dozen testing labs in the US alone, according to the Non-GMO Sourcebook. Levels of expertise — and consumer awareness — differ as do their services. For the do-it-yourself minded QA manager, test kits that identify the presence of bioengineered genes are also available from a variety of sources.

Specializing in third-party certification, the Non-GMO Project claims its Non-GMO Project Verified seal is the fastest growing product labeling icon in the natural products industry. The project, founded on “right to know” principles and consumer education, bases its work on a consensus-based standard that requires testing of individual ingredients rather than the finished product. It maintains a list of “at risk” ingredients, available on the group’s website, The project estimated it takes four to six months to complete its certification process.

The Non-GMO Project lists more than 70 baking companies and brands for which it has certified one or more products. Another 50-plus are in the process of verification. Nearly 100 wholesale ingredient suppliers have already been certified with 40 more pending.

Another such group is Green Star Certified, Lead, SD. Foods that meet its standards can carry the Green Star GMO Free Certified brand. To qualify, food companies must submit samples tested for GMO content by independent laboratories using ELISA protein or DNA/PRC methods. Green Star then verifies the non-GMO status. The group, founded on “green business” principles, comes to the GMO labeling arena from the standpoint of consumer environmental awareness.

So, what does “going non-GMO” mean to the baking and snack industries? With the potential magnitude of the non-GMO labeling movement, it’s not unusual for food processors and their new product developers to feel hemmed in by factors not of their choosing.

However, formulators can take advantage of earlier work done to comply with rules for certified-organic foods. Public policy issues surrounding GMOs are different than those posed by organics, but hearing the drumbeat has prompted development of an extended support system consisting of non-GMO ingredient suppliers, qualified testing labs and third-party certifiers. Have you figured out the melody yet?