Remember when Cheerios and Grape-Nuts went GMO-free? That was about a year ago, when their corporate creators announced that these products would no longer contain ingredients made from genetically modified organisms like common types of corn, soybeans or sugar beets.
When they actually arrived on supermarket shelves, though, there was a mysterious change in their list of ingredients. Four vitamins that previously had been added to Grape-Nuts — Vitamins A, D, B-12 and B-2 (also known as riboflavin) — were gone. Riboflavin vanished from Cheerios.
Wayne Parrott, a professor of crop science at the University of Georgia and defender of GMOs, was among the first to point out the change. He criticized General Mills and Post Foods for marketing their non-GMO cereals as especially wholesome. "The new version [of Cheerios] is certainly less nutritious," he told a reporter for Foodnavigator-usa.com, which covers the food industry.
This mini-controversy never got much attention. Recently, though, as we interviewed scientists who are using genetically altered yeast and bacteria to make nutrients and flavors, we recalled the strange case of the vanishing vitamins. We wondered: Do GMO microbes make vitamins, too? Is that why they can't be used in non-GMO cereals?
The companies directly involved weren't terribly helpful. Post Foods, the maker of Grape-Nuts, informed us in a prepared statement that vitamins were removed because "they did not meet non-GMO standards," but refused to explain why this was so.
Two of the world's major vitamin makers, BASF and DSM, declined to provide details of their manufacturing. "There is very little non-proprietary information I could talk to you about," a spokesman for DSM wrote in an email.
We dug further and discovered that vitamins may fail the non-GMO test for a variety of reasons.
Some companies are most likely making vitamin B-12 and riboflavin using genetically modified microbes; they have, at least, published scientific papers showing how this can be done.
On the other hand, these vitamins don't necessarily come from GMO microbes. There are strains of bacteria that produce these vitamins naturally. Yet even such microbes may not qualify for non-GMO status, because there's another hurdle. Vitamin-makers have to show that their microbes consumed feed — glucose, for instance — that came from non-GMO sources.
There's a further complication. Some vitamins have to be mixed with other substances, such as cornstarch, to handle them easily. Can't prove that the cornstarch was free of genetic modification? Sorry, no non-GMO certification from the Non GMO Project, an independent organization.
Bethany Davis, director of regulatory affairs at FoodState, which sells nutritional supplements, says that for all those reasons, vitamins get very tight scrutiny before they can be certified as non-GMO.
It is still possible to find non-GMO vitamins, she says. Increasingly, you can get them from China. But it requires additional time and attention. Big cereal manufacturers like General Mills or Post Foods, Davis says, may find it easier just to drop vitamins from the recipe.
Extracting vitamins from ordinary foods like carrots is possible, but it's generally much more expensive.
That leaves one method of vitamin production that's cheap, industrial-scale, and reliably non-GMO: synthetic chemistry. Vitamins are commonly manufactured from scratch in chemical factories, using ingredients that cannot be linked to any genes or biological process at all. That technology may not inspire great affection, but it does, at least, qualify as non-GMO.