KANSAS CITY — The proportion of shoppers shunning genetically modified foods has tripled over the past decade, according to The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. Forty-six per cent of consumers surveyed last year said they actively avoid bioengineered ingredients, which compared with 15% of consumers surveyed in 2007.
Discomfort, distrust and uncertainty fuel concerns over genetically modified foods as consumers perceive such products as unhealthful and potentially harmful, despite broad scientific consensus that biotechnology is safe and beneficial, The Hartman Group said.
“Today’s consumers are seeking more choice and transparency in their food,” said Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager for Cargill, Minneapolis. “They want to recognize the ingredients, understand what purpose they serve in a product and even know where the ingredients come from. Interest in non-G.M.O. products is a further reflection of this overall trend in consumer purchase decisions.
“According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2018 Food and Health Survey, 40% of consumers view products that contain non-G.M.O. ingredients as healthier than identical products made with G.M.O. ingredients.”
Heightened concerns over bioengineered foods has translated to continued strong demand for Non-GMO Project verified products. The Non-GMO Project, Bellingham, Wash., has verified an estimated 60,000 products owned by more than 5,000 brands since 2010, when the now-ubiquitous butterfly logo began appearing on retail shelves.
“Growth has been extreme and consistent,” said Hans Eisenbeis, director of marketing and communications for the Non-GMO Project. “In terms of the verification program, we continue to grow 15% to 20% every year. In terms of consumer demand, we’re seeing 9% growth, considerably more growth than most other attributes, including organic, which has started to level off.”
While most consumers are aware of genetically modified organisms — 97%, according to The Hartman Group — comprehension generally remains low.
“The depth of the average consumer’s understanding on non-G.M.O. and organic is pretty superficial,” Mr. Eisenbeis said. “We know that with both non-G.M.O. and even more so with organic, the most common Googled search term is ‘definition.’ ‘What’s the definition of G.M.O.?’ ‘What’s the definition of organic?’
“I think the industry is now beginning to realize we have an obligation to continue to educate consumers.”
New frontiers for non-G.M.O. claims
Founded in 2007, the Non-GMO Project offers independent verification of testing for products in the United States and Canada. Annual sales of Non-GMO Project verified products now exceed $26 billion.
The organization continues to see “massive growth in Non-GMO Project verified snacks, bars and convenience foods,” Mr. Eisenbeis said.
“This last category includes some interesting stories like single-serve yogurts and frozen heat-and-serve meals,” he added. “It basically tells you that shoppers, especially millennials, continue to want to see premium non-G.M.O. and organic options in new categories where conventional foods were once the norm.”
Danone North America, White Plains, N.Y., has expanded its selection of Non-GMO Project verified yogurt products as part of a broader commitment to sustainable agriculture and transparency.
“We have worked with the (Non-GMO) Project for several years on verification of various parts of our supply chain,” said Michael Neuwirth, senior director of external communications at Danone North America. “Verifying that the milk used in some of our yogurts that are Non-GMO Project Verified involves verification that the feed of the cows is also verified.”
The company offers Non-GMO Project verified yogurt across a portfolio of brands that includes Activia, Danimals, Dannon, Light & Fit and Oikos.
“We believe in providing choices that fulfill the preferences for the fans of our products, and many are looking for Non-GMO Project verified options,” Mr. Neuwirth said.
The Non-GMO Project verification spans the entire supply chain, including agricultural production, handling, storage, distribution, processing, manufacturing and packaging.
“There are a lot of places where G.M.O.s can hide,” Mr. Eisenbeis said.
Salt, for example, cannot be genetically modified, but it may be treated with an anti-caking agent derived from genetically modified corn, he noted.
“We know consumers want to know what’s in their food, and they don’t want family dinner to be a science experiment,” Mr. Eisenbeis said. “One area especially of concern is in plant-based alternatives to meat.”
Impossible Foods, Redwood City, Calif., uses genetic engineering to produce heme, the ingredient that adds a “bleeding” attribute to the plant-based Impossible Burger. Several competitors, including Beyond Meat, El Segundo, Calif., have adopted a G.M.O.-free claim as a point of differentiation. The Beyond Burger is Non-GMO Project verified, Mr. Eisenbeis said.
“We look at that as they want to be a part of the solution to industrial agriculture, and Impossible Burger is in a meaningful sense on the outside looking in,” Mr. Eisenbeis said.
Ethan Brown, founder, president and chief executive officer of Beyond Meat, said the company’s ingredient philosophy has helped it access “the broadest base of consumers.”
“If you think about what our value proposition is, we’re building meat directly from plants,” Mr. Brown said during a July 29 earnings call. “Our promise to the consumers is we’re going to make it indistinguishable at some point, and we’re getting closer and closer. We listen to what they want in terms of ingredients, and so we really stayed away from genetic modification or anything artificial, soy, etc., in recent years.”
The growth in plant-based alternatives has created additional opportunities for non-G.M.O. ingredient development, said Junya Taniguchi, manager of national industrial sales and research and development for Kikkoman Sales USA, Inc., San Francisco.
“The growing ‘flexitarian’ trend has product developers focusing on filling a rapidly growing demand for meals and snacks that rely less on animal protein and lean toward a more plant-centered diet, but still contain umami-rich ingredients such as soy sauce,” Mr. Taniguchi said. “Kikkoman offers a wide variety of production-friendly flavor solutions to help processors meet the growing consumer demand for healthy, flavorful, flexitarian food development.”
At IFT19, the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food expo, held June 2-5 in New Orleans, Kikkoman showcased a range of solutions for plant-based applications. The company achieved Non-GMO Project verification for several products, including two dehydrated soy sauces.
“Produced from North American-grown, non-G.M.O. soybeans, each of the non-G.M.O. products are made using strict brewing protocols,” Mr. Taniguchi said.
Consumers also are increasingly seeking non-bioengineered options in the beverage aisle, Mr. Eisenbeis said.
“Coconut water continues to be trending into Non-GMO Project verified as the category grows,” Mr. Eisenbeis said. “Verification is valued in the natural beverage space because many flavorings and sweeteners can be derived from genetic engineering techniques.”
Recently, he said, brands formulating food and beverage products with cannabis ingredients, such as cannabidiol (C.B.D.), are seeking verification.
“We are not currently verifying anything with C.B.D.,” Mr. Eisenbeis said. “I can tell you we’re getting calls every day about it because it’s blowing up. Our concern on C.B.D. is larger than just the G.M.O. issue… Let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture of a better food system just to chase today’s trend.”
Navigating the non-G.M.O. landscape
Bakery foods, bread and prepared meals are among product categories generating increased demand for non-G.M.O. options, said Bethany Rahja, commercial analyst for Cargill’s global edible oils business in North America.
Cargill offers an extensive non-G.M.O. ingredient portfolio that includes texturizers, sweeteners, fats and oils, starches, fibers, flour and ancient grains, cocoa and chocolate, Ms. Stauffer said.
“Cargill has been helping our customers navigate the non-G.M.O. landscape for nearly 20 years,” she said. “Today, we offer the industry’s broadest non-G.M.O. ingredient portfolio, enabling customers to source multiple ingredients through a single supplier. For example, we offer non-G.M.O. stevia, erythritol and chicory root fiber, three key components for many reduced-sugar products.
“As a one-stop shop for non-G.M.O. ingredients, we save customers time and help them get to market faster.”
The company sees continued demand for both non-G.M.O. and G.M.O. crops, said Jana Mauck, marketing manager for Cargill’s global edible oils business in North America.
“We believe the two can and will co-exist to feed a growing population,” Ms. Mauck said. “We believe G.M.O.s are proven safe and help deliver a number of benefits. Cargill believes that biotechnology will play an important role in feeding a growing global population.
“We also recognize that some consumers want choice when it comes to the ingredients used in the products they eat. The demand for choice also provides additional markets and options for producers.”
Manufacturers should consider key challenges and implications before pursuing non-G.M.O. product verification, said Randal Giroux, vice-president of food safety, quality and regulatory for Cargill.
“From a supply chain perspective, companies generally move away from highly flexible and efficient commoditized agricultural supply chains to an identity-preserved program,” Mr. Giroux said. “This increases the risk of potential volume or supply disruptions, can remove transparent price discovery opportunities and requires significant upfront forecasting and planning to meet supply needs.
“With a growing number of unique and private certification schemes, it’s important to recognize access to existing non-G.M.O. supplies is not a given as certification criteria may be different. From a sustainability perspective, non-G.M.O. agronomics have been shown to negatively impact several sustainability metrics, including greenhouse gas emissions, environmental impacts and soil biodiversity.”
Additionally, he said, the cost of non-G.M.O. ingredients may be significantly higher than conventional inputs.
“If those costs cannot flow through to a consumer willingness to pay, these are likely added costs to food manufacturers,” Mr. Giroux said.