Just a few years ago, the idea that non-GMO labels would appear on mainstream food products such as Cheerios and Grape Nuts was far-fetched, an anti-GMO activist’s dream. Amazingly, that dream recently become a reality as General Mills and Post Foods announced that two iconic cereal brands—Cheerios and Grape Nuts—would be reformulated with non-GMO ingredients.
The dramatic move by two food industry giants signals loud and clear that non-GMO—once a small niche within the natural/organic food segment—has become a mainstream movement.
General Mills and Post follow on the heels of other major companies—Whole Foods Market, Ben & Jerry’s, and Chipotle—that have made similar non-GMO commitments in the past year, leaving industry analysts to speculate who will be next.
General Mills launched the first salvo in January when it quietly posted a statement on the Cheerios website saying it switched to non-GMO ingredients in the original Cheerios: “It’s the unique and simple nature of original Cheerios that made this possible—and even that required significant investment over nearly a year,” and “We were able to change how we source and handle ingredients to ensure that the corn starch for original Cheerios comes only from non-GMO corn, and our sugar is only non-GMO pure cane sugar.”
In a blog post, Tom Forsythe, General Mills’ vice president of global communications, said his company made the change because they thought that
“consumers may embrace it.”
He also emphasized his company’s position that GM foods are safe.
Since Cheerios is made primarily from oats, the switch to non-GMO was not that difficult. The change will be indicated on the Cheerios’ ingredient panel, which will state, “Not made with genetically modified ingredients.” It only affects original Cheerios; the other 12 Cheerios products will continue to use GM ingredients.
Non-GMO supporters consider getting General Mills to remove GMOs from original Cheerios a major win. Cheerios products are the best-selling cereals in the US, generating more than $500 million in annual sales. Cheerios is often the first solid food eaten by infants.
It was Cheerios’ iconic status that led Green America’s GMO Inside to target General Mills over the use of GMO ingredients in the cereal starting in November 2012. Tens of thousands of consumers flooded Cheerios’ Facebook page with comments about the use of GMOs.
Evidently General Mills listened to the consumers, another indication of the growing power of social media.
Green America corporate responsibility Director Todd Larsen stated: “Removing GMOs from original Cheerios is an important victory in getting GMOs out of our food supply and an important first step for General Mills. Original Cheerios in its famous yellow box will now be non-GMO and this victory sends a message to all food companies that consumers are increasingly looking for non-GMO products, and companies need to meet that demand.”
Non-GMO Project verified Grape Nuts
Another food company that has listened to the growing consumer demand for non-GMO is Post Foods. The company’s Grape Nuts cereal became known as one of the first “health foods” in television commercials featuring natural food enthusiast Euell Gibbons back in the 1970s. Now Grape Nuts is getting a fresh update as a Non-GMO Project verified cereal.
No sooner had food industry experts begun analyzing the impact of General Mills’ decision than news leaked on social media that Post Grape Nuts Original cereal had been Non-GMO Project verified.
In response to inquiries about such a change, Post Foods responded by stating: “Post has released a non-GMO verified Grape Nuts that is currently on the store shelves as of January 2014. Also, we are exploring some of our other cereals to see if there is potential going forward to add more non-GMO verified products to the Post Foods product line. We are always listening to our consumers and looking for ways to provide a good variety of products.”
Grape Nuts Original was the first flavor to be non-GMO verified.
Post Food’s subsidiary, Attune Foods, has a number of Non-GMO Project verified products including Erewhon, Uncle Sam, and Peace Cereal brands.
Post’s non-GMO switch may be even more significant than Cheerios’ because Grape Nuts is third-party verified by the Non-GMO Project, giving that program even more credibility.
Non-GMO tipping point coming?
In just five years, the Non-GMO Project has grown to verify more than 14,000 products with sales of verified products reaching $5 billion in 2013.
A report published last year by Packaged Facts projected that by 2017 non-GMO products will make up around 30% of total food and beverage sales, with a value of about $264 billion.
Growth of the non-GMO trend has been fueled by several major developments in the past year. Whole Foods Market announced that it would require labeling of products in its stores containing GM ingredients by 2018. This has led many companies that sell to Whole Foods to seek non-GMO verification. Also, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream committed to removing GM ingredients from its products by mid-2014, and Chipotle Mexican Grill committed to eliminating GM ingredients in foods served in its restaurants.
Looking forward, several industry experts see more big companies going non-GMO. Even before Post’s announcement, Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific, told the Christian Science Monitor that “an avalanche” of food companies would follow General Mills’ non-GMO lead. An article on the financial website Motley Fool said: “If consumers respond to these switches with their wallets instead of just their words, expect the trend to grow more rapidly and possibly even facilitate enough of a backing for the mandatory labeling of GMOs in all food products.” Euromonitor research analyst Virginia Kelly told Food Navigator, “Kellogg has to follow. When brands as big as Cheerios and Grape Nuts make changes like this, I think everyone will be looking to see what the other brands do.”
John Roulac, GMO Inside co-founder and co-chair, compares General Mills’s and Post’s moves to the fall of the Berlin Wall. “It’s a crack in the corporate branding of foods. These companies realize that GMOs are an albatross on a brand,” he says.
GMO Inside will continue to push big companies to remove GMOs. “We will go after one (big food manufacturer) after another after another. We expect more (non-GMO) announcements this year,” Roulac says.
Ken is editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.