The Cheerios Challenge

February 6th, 2014 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on The Cheerios Challenge

breakfastCerealGeneral Mills has made the decision to stop using GMO ingredients to make Cheerios, and, to advertise its decision on their cereal boxes beginning sometime in 2014. While General Mills should indeed be commended for this decision, there are a few things to keep in mind:

There is no such thing as Genetically modified oats – the primary ingredient in Cheerios. The reason for this is simple – there are not enough oat farmers in the world, or enough oats grown, to create sufficient demand to justify the incredibly expensive research that goes into developing genetically modified seeds. In the United States, corn and soybeans are the drivers of GMO product development. So many other cereals are made with corn or contain sugar that it would be very cost-prohibitive, for most of them to make a similar move. The whole-grain oats that are the main ingredient of Cheerios, have always been GMO-free, but General Mills is now ensuring that the sugar and cornstarch used in the cereal come from non-GMO sources.

Much of this move is about brand positioning. Cheerios is looking to capture the “healthy market”, if you will. While sales of all cereals dropped 2.5 percent for the year, Cheerios sales fell by 7 percent, and a perceptual change in the consumer marketplace is what they’re aiming for, and they even acknowledge this as motivating their move.

Over 6 million people start their day with Honey Nut Cheerios. It’s America’s #1 breakfast cereal. But unfortunately, they will not yet be GMO-Free. And, while original Cheerios contain only one gram of sugar per serving, Honey Nut Cheerios contain nine times the amount of sugar and the majority of processed sugar comes from sugar beets, which are mostly genetically modified. In 2010, 95% of the sugar beets grown in the U.S. were Monsanto patented. And more to this point, while continuing to use genetically modified ingredients in products sold in the United States and Canada, General Mills offers non-GMO Honey Nut Cheerios to consumers in Europe. So, they are in fact quite capable of manufacturing GMO-Free Honey Nut Cheerios.

General Mills has spent over a million dollars in the past two years blocking GMO labeling laws. In Washington State, General Mills funded the campaign opposing labeling initiative 522 through the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).

Even still, I do applaud this move by Genral Mills. I think it’s a beginning, and most likely will be closely watched by other large companies to see how this plays out. And irrespective of their motivation, it’s the outcome that’s important. If every company stopped selling GMO-ingredient products based on their own self-interest, that’s really fine with me. They have a model of business that they need to sustain, and if moves like this support their model, and the outcome benefits everyone – we all win.

Perhaps my biggest concern as we look closely at the GMO issue, is that there could be an unsuspecting casualty as this battle unfolds – one that is near and dear to all of our hearts. That casualty . . . organic foods. Yes, as the GMO issue heats up, and more and more people become aware of genetically modified food, there is the very clear possibility that GMO-Free food will become the Holy Grail of eating. It’s getting a lot of attention and even reaching mainstream consumerism. Foods that are GMO-Free could easily become viewed as the gold standard for healthy eating by consumers. And while we want GMO-Free products to be viewed as beneficial, if they are “over-perceived, they actually may trump organic when it comes to how healthy eating is viewed by consumers. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s true or accurate – perception becomes the reality. We have seen this to be the case with organic and natural foods, where now most surveys show that the majority of consumers believe that natural foods are better and healthier for you than organic foods. Not at all true, of course, but this perception has now become the reality for many who shop for what they believe to be, healthy foods.

So, it’s not at all outside the realm of possibilities that as big moves happen with genetic engineering (such as the Cheerios announcement) people will become more aware of GMO as an issue, and perceive a GMO-Free product (still conventionally grown) as a better choice than organically-raised food. Imagine that – conventionally grown Cheerios seen as better for you than an organic cereal. Unfortunately, this is not at all a reach to imagine. Who would have thought that natural would ever become a stronger choice than organic? It’s important for us to understand how an issue gains momentum and how it plays itself out in the world. If we are going to be involved in this battle, then we need to understand and be alert to all possibilities and outcomes.

Just something to keep our eye on, and make sure that part of our messaging with organic foods is that if you truly want to avoid genetically modified food, then organic, by law, is always GMO-Free. Right now, it’s the only way to truly know that you will not be ingesting any genetically raised food. Even as General Mills takes a big step forward, they have not declared that the cereal will be third-party verified to ensure the purity of their ingredients.

Keep up the good fight . . . but also pay close attention. The “shopper‘s psyche” can be very impressionable and easily misled. It’s important that we pay close attention to the larger picture and not only understand the ramifications of the GMO battle, but are ahead of the game with our messaging. We must make sure that facts trump perceptions.