Last week General Mills announced that their No. 1 selling cereal, Cheerios, will now be made without the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). Some consumers will consider this a big change to a household staple and anti-GMO groups are calling this move a vindication of the concerns about GMO crops. But, according to a Cornell Professor the “new” Cheerios will be no different than the old “yellow-boxed” product.
“The ingredients that are in Cheerios that could’ve come from a genetically engineered variety are corn starch and sugar,” said Margaret Smith, professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University. “Corn starch does not have protein in it and it does not have DNA in it — it is purified starch. So, the starch is going to be completely identical regardless of which variety, GMO or non-GMO, it comes from. That is why Cheerios will be nutritionally and biochemically no different in the new form as it was in the old one.”
Ultimately General Mills has decided to use non-GMO corn for the starch used in Cheerios and cane sugar, which has no genetically engineered varieties at this time. This marketing strategy may move Cheerios off the shelf at a faster rate for the short-term, but did General Mills create a slippery slope when it comes to making their other top selling brands GMO-free in the future?
“For cereals with more ingredients like corn, soybeans or even cottonseed or canola it will be more challenging,” Smith said. “If you are producing corn flakes, that would be a huge change and almost impossible. For a company that uses a lot of ingredients that have GMO varieties, it would be very difficult and costly not only for General Mills, but for the consumer.”
Smith said that the new GMO-free Cheerios doesn’t give consumers a different option at the grocery store, but it does give people an option to not support GMO technology or the companies that use it in their products.
“Are they getting a product that is any different, any safer or any more nutritious? No,” Smith said.
Smith acknowledges that a move to a GMO-free product by such a large company is a setback for GMO technology; it is also a prime chance to educate the consumer.
“This is the perfect opportunity to help people understand that when you have highly refined ingredients like starch and sugar, it’s simply starch and sugar,” Smith said. “Cheerios is a major product but it is the perfect one to illustrate what often confuses people, like what a GMO food or ingredient actually is and what it is not.”