Some view them as helpful, others view them as harmful. Either way, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have made a huge impact on the natural products industry as more consumers diligently seek products deemed non-GMO.
GMOs, defined by the Non-GMO Project as “living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering," have flashed on consumers’ radars in recent years as a potential health threat. Therefore, ingredients derived from alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, and zucchini and yellow summer squash—crops considered high-risk by the Non-GMO Project—must undergo testing prior to use in Non-GMO Project Verified products.
This verification has become a high priority for consumers, with 47 percent considering non-GMO products “better," according to research by BENEO on consumer perception of fiber ingredients. The total sales of Non-GMO Project verified products jumped from USD $348.8 million in 2010 to $10 billion—with a “b"—in 2015, according to data from SPINS. In addition, there are currently more than 27,000 Non-GMO Project Verified products representing more than 2,600 brands.
The project’s roots go back to 2001, when The Big Carrot Natural Food Market in Ontario made the radical move of discontinuing product lines that were not confirmed non-GMO by the manufacturers. In 2003, The Natural Grocery Store Co. of Berkeley, California, began a letter-writing effort with 161 grocery stores and co-ops to discover the non-GMO status of products and supplements in the United States. Then, in 2005, both the Natural Grocery Company and the Big Carrot Natural Food Market joined to form The Non-GMO Project, which would serve the mission of creating a “standardized meaning of non-GMO for the North American food industry," according to the organization’s website. Today, The Non-GMO Project offers the only third-party verification program for non-GMO products in North America.
“The Non-GMO Project Verified logo is the fastest growing label in the industry," said Kate Brown, founder of Boulder Organic Foods, a company that obtained Non-GMO Project verification for all of its soup products. “This speaks volumes for the value that consumers and manufacturers place on this verification. Additionally, Americans are speaking with their dollars, evident in the recent increase in sales of Non-GMO Project verified products."
Steps to remove GMOs, meet consumer demands
Achieving non-GMO status has become increasingly important for supplement and functional food manufacturers as consumers seek to lessen or eliminate GMO products from their diets. In order to earn non-GMO verification, Kelly Mae Heroux, marketing manager, FoodChain ID, the first technical administrator for the Non-GMO Project, explained that companies who sell products in the United States and Canada can enroll in the Non-GMO Project’s Product Verification Program (PVP) for guidance and support through the process. The verification body can help explain the procedure, ensure efficacy and quality of the effort and also expound on the benefits of using the verified seal on product packaging.
According to Heroux, the non-GMO process focuses on four areas: compliant inputs, traceability, segregation and clean-out, and testing of high-risk GMO inputs. For FoodChain ID clients enrolling in the PVP, the process goes as follows:
- Companies must request detailed information from ingredient suppliers; this includes the raw materials, processing aids (fermentation aids or enzymes), and other inputs, which will then be submitted for evaluation to determine if they are compliant with the Non-GMO Project standard.
- Companies must demonstrate that their facilities (at which products are finished) have strong traceability, segregation and clean out practices.
- Depending on the products, companies may need to work with their raw material suppliers to implement a sampling strategy. Once sampled, materials will go to a Non-GMO Project approved lab for testing.
The complete process for obtaining non-GMO verification depends on each product’s ingredient list, said Caroline Kinsman, communications manager, The Non-GMO Project. She explained the organization does not verify by brands, but by products, and the average time for verification ranges from four to six months. The cost varies, but starts at about USD $400. “It is really reliant on the ingredient list and how much testing that may be involved," Kinsman said.
The final step toward success for a non-GMO verified product includes altering packaging to show the new Non-GMO Project Verified seal. This part is important, as the non-GMO movement is largely driven by consumers’ demand for transparency. “Consumers who are looking to avoid GMOs in their purchasing are able to look for our seal and know there is a rigorous standard behind that product for avoiding GMOs," Kinsman explained.
Challenges can certainly come up during this process, and they largely vary from product to product, according to Kinsman. She explained it often depends on the supply of non-GMO ingredients and inputs that go into particular products. For example, some products use processing agents or mediums that include GMO content. The Non-GMO Project looks at all input, down to yeast ingredients that may be used in an animal’s feed for products containing meat, eggs, dairy or honey.
From a manufacturer’s point of view, the main challenges when reformulating products to fit non-GMO standards are time and money. It takes a significant amount of time to find new suppliers offering non-GMO ingredients, Brown explained, but the most time-consuming task for Boulder Organic Foods involved vetting its ingredients as Non-GMO Project Verified.
“This task is not difficult, just tedious, involving significant paperwork to get the right documents to the right people," Brown said. She added non-GMO/organic ingredients are generally more expensive to source. Companies should plan ahead and allow plenty of time for transitioning products to meet non-GMO standards. Additionally, they should ensure the necessary resources can be devoted to the process.
Luckily, there are plenty of resources available, assured Kristy Lewis, CEO and founder of Quinn Popcorn, a company with most of its products verified by the Non-GMO Project. She added going through the verification process is “the same thing as the careful sourcing [companies] should already be doing." It takes numerous searches and phone calls, plus plenty of dedication to find the right suppliers to fit a company’s needs.
Lewis added cost remains a significant issue when seeking non-GMO ingredients. However, she is optimistic this will not always be the case. “As customer awareness spreads, the demand for non-GMO products will grow, which in turn will make suppliers more willing to invest in creating non-GMO ingredients … consumers are willing to pay [more] for non-GMO products," Lewis said.
While Quinn Popcorn continues to inch closer to obtaining the Non-GMO Project seal for all of its products, trouble spots, such as dairy, have kept it from meeting its goal. Companies will likely find it challenging to purchase non-GMO dairy ingredients due to the prices, Lewis said. Quinn Popcorn’s non-GMO cheddar cheese costs USD $14 per pound, while the conventional option costs about $4 per pound.
“The non-GMO ingredients are typically priced at a premium due to the supply and the extra regulatory steps needed to verify non-GMO status," said Jennifer Stephens, director of marketing, Fiberstar. “This increases product development costs, which either need to be absorbed or passed on to the consumer. Because supply is limited for some non-GMO food ingredients, companies need to decide whether implementing this policy across all their product lines creates supply risk factors, or identify specific brands within the product portfolio."
Stephens also agreed with the idea that non-GMO product consumers are willing to pay more, even with limited supplies, so passing the product development cost to the consumer offers a short-term solution until the market “reaches a new equilibrium."
Work in progress: Defining “GMO," creating solutions for supplements
Despite all the hype over removing GMOs, Daniel Fabricant, Ph.D., CEO of the Natural Products Association (NPA), told INSIDER he isn’t so sure consumers completely understand what they are asking for when it comes to non-GMO products. Without a federal definition in place, he said the term remains somewhat “nebulous" within the United States.
“There needs to be a clear-cut definition of what non-GMO means," Fabricant said. “Does it mean [the product] passed a finished product test? Was it on a field that never had genetic material grow by it?" Because the Non-GMO Project definition lacks legal standing, Fabricant advised that manufacturers focus on going USDA organic because there is “language in the law on that [term]." He also advised industry to make its voice heard on this issue, writing letters to Congress to state the need for clarity surrounding the “non-GMO" term.
On the other hand, Frank Lampe, vice president of communications and industry relations, United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA), said the Non-GMO Project has been successful for “good reason," and the group has certainly earned its trust among consumers. However, while the group has been effective in working with the food industry, there is now an obvious need to address issues related to dietary supplements and how these companies can meet the non-GMO standards.
“The process is very different [for dietary supplements]," Lampe said. “That’s what led to the formation ..."
"... of the Non-GMO Working Group. Industry is moving to fulfill the need for ensuring a reliable and certifiable non-GMO supply chain for supplements."
Lampe said UNPA has been working closely with the Non-GMO Working Group, a loose coalition of finished dietary supplement companies, contract manufacturers and suppliers, which will address the dietary supplement industry’s need for sourcing and certification of non-GMO ingredients for use in supplements.
While the Non-GMO Working Group has been active for about two years, it plans to “formalize and organize" to create solutions for issues such as The Non-GMO Project’s changing and tightening standards for dietary supplements and how companies can comply, according to Robert Craven, CEO of FoodState. Craven explained the group is committed to The Non-GMO Project, but because the supply chain for supplements has additional complications compared to the functional food supply chain, the Non-GMO Working group will help formalize an approach based on the direction non-GMO verification is heading for dietary supplements.
“The disadvantage that supplement manufacturers have is that most ingredients are not single input ingredients," said Justin Bingham, product development manager, Trace Minerals Research. “There can be layers upon layers of inputs and/or processes that have used GMOs for a very long time. Finding those companies who stand out or who are willing to change can take time."
Other complicating issues include mixed stream products, fermented ingredients, microencapsulation and excipients, said Lisa Lent, founder and CEO, Vitalah. Luckily, there are many resources that can help, including ingredient directories, trade publications and source reports. One particular challenge, she explained, includes documentation.
“Documentation is a key issue—the documents needed for certification do not always go all the way back to the farm level and the agricultural practices used to produce the source crops, or all the way through the various processors," Lent said. “Suppliers are having to create new documents and systems of traceability that didn’t exist before."
Lent also said there has been a recent “surge in awareness" about the issues surrounding non-GMO verification for supplements, and the change is certainly underway.
Although Congress has yet to pin down a legal definition of “GMO," and compliance issues are still being addressed for dietary supplement companies, consumer interest continues to drive the non-GMO movement. While the arguments surrounding GMO ingredients—their potential health risks, economic impact, effects on the environment and so on—are enough to make a person’s head spin, functional food and supplement manufacturers should focus on one main idea: the consumer’s right to know.
“The issue has been made overly complex by both sides," Lewis said. “This is about the consumers having the right to know what’s in their food … there is never a sound argument as to why consumers should be kept in the dark."
Whether they want foods that meet a certain governmental standard, or foods that have verifications from a prominent nonprofit organization, these choices are up to the consumer, and their demands will continue to drive the industry. It’s up to natural product manufacturers and brand owners to overcome the challenges and meet this growing consumer need.