Do proponents of genetically modified foods have it right after all? Are GMO foods better for us and the world?
On the surface, the news that the newly reformulated GMO-free original Cheerios from General Mills (NYSE:GIS) have less vitamins than the old variety would certainly suggest that. And Post Holdings' (NYSE:POST) new non-GMO Grape-Nuts have also eliminated a bunch of essential vitamins, seemingly going further to underscore that it's true. But looks can be deceiving, or at least not tell the whole story.
It is a fact that the new formulations do have fewer vitamins than those containing GMO ingredients. Industry site BakeryandSnacks.com says the new GMO-free Cheerios are missing vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and vitamin B2 (riboflavin), while non-GMO Grape-Nuts are virtually devoid of riboflavin, with the vitamin falling from 25% of the daily value to 2%. But General Mills points out it never said going GMO-free was necessarily "more wholesome." And according to BakeryandSnacks.com, neither General Mills nor Post would comment on "whether it has anything to do with the costs or challenges of going through the non-GMO Project verification process for the vitamins in question."
Industry site Food Navigator points out that vitamins can be created during fermentation, while others, like vitamin E, get added when soy is used. The USDA says GM soy is so pervasive that 94% of all soybeans grown in the U.S. are now genetically modified. DuPont is the largest manufacturer of genetically modified seeds for soy, ahead of even Monsanto, and it is introducing a soy-based nugget ingredient that will allow nutrition-bar manufacturers to substitute it for more expensive dairy proteins while still providing 40% protein and 30% fiber.
So, proponents will say that not only do genetically modified crops provide better yields, but the process is healthier for you, too. It's a win-win situation.
Not so fast. The crop yield debate is not quite as settled as GMO backers would have you believe, particularly as the latest research finds that, at best, what genetically altered crops can claim is that fluctuations in yield are not as volatile as with conventional crops, while certain traits such as being Roundup Ready -- crops resistant to the Monsanto herbicide that kills weeds -- and Bt (to combat corn root worm) actually cause lower yields. The better-yield argument also ignores the effects that overapplication of herbicides and insecticides are having in the creation of superweeds and superbugs resistant to the broad-spectrum killers.
As for your bowl of cereal being like a multivitamin, it's essentially an overblown issue. Yes, cereal makers add vitamins to their cereals before bagging them -- that's why they're called "fortified" cereals -- but you're likely getting all that you need from a regular healthy diet anyway. All those B vitamins the GM-based cereals give you are also found in oatmeal, lean meats, chicken, fish, dried beans, nuts, leafy greens, and bananas. Vitamin A can be found in red and orange fruits and vegetables like carrots and tomatoes, leafy greens, and broccoli. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, strawberries, red bell peppers, broccoli, potatoes, and cantaloupe. To think you need to eat a bowl of genetically modified Cheerios to get a big jump on your vitamin needs is a distraction at best.
Breakfast cereals as a category have been suffering from falling sales for some time, something General Mills has blamed on a lack of industry advertising and product innovation. That's debatable, and while I suspect it could be part of a broader shift in consumer tastes, it's coincidental if nothing else that the decline has come about just as awareness over GMO foods has grown.
GMO-free cereals by themselves likely won't move the needle on sales, but it's the sort of product innovation General Mills has bemoaned as lacking that could at least stem the loss cereal makers are witnessing. It also goes to show that, once again, your mom was right, and you should eat your green vegetables.
Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.