GMO-Free, and Fewer Calories Too! Big Food Makes Some PR Moves

Last week the food industry congratulated itself for cutting calories from its products, right after one major corporation, General Mills, announced that Cheerios would henceforth be free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Both stories generated plenty of media attention, and in an era when food companies are widely criticized for their poor quality foods, the industry needs all the good press it can get. But if you scratch just below the surface, you'll find little more than meaningless "changes" made for appearances' sake.

As for the new GMO-free Cheerios, General Mills made the change despite being one of the major contributors to the fight against GMO labeling in California and Washington, giving $1,230,300 and $598,800, respectively. That's because the vast majority of General Mills' products rely on GMO ingredients. (Note: General Mills' CEO has gone on record saying he wants a national standard that would label foods that don't have genetically engineered ingredients in them, rather than foods that do.)

But when it comes to Cheerios, the company saw great public relations and sales opportunities in easily changing corn starch to the GMO-free variety and switching from sugar made from sugar beets, which are genetically modified, to cane sugar, which is not.

This was a relatively easy switch for the company, since it already makes a GMO-free version for many parts of Europe. However, a General Mills spokesman said on that the switch required a significant investment. He also added that ridding genetic modification from other types of Cheerios, like Honey Nut Cheerios and Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, would be "difficult, if not impossible."

So it's not as if Cheerios is the first in a long list of GMO products to be eliminated by General Mills. More likely, the company expects a significant return on its investment in the form of boosted sales, given Cheerios' shiny new "GMO-free" label. Once again, the Big Food players get to decide when and in what context they wish to let the American people know exactly what is in their food.

Voluntary labeling of GMO foods is problematic for a number of reasons. First, using a new label announcing GMO-free status on foods could be used as another marketing ploy to further confuse consumers. Many consumers have a vague idea of what GMOs are and may think it's best to avoid them based on the surrounding controversy. Indeed, this might make them more inclined to buy a product with the GMO-free label, even if the product isn't healthy at all -- which is likely what General Mills is banking on.

This kind of voluntary labeling could become another case in which products take on a "health halo" despite being junk foods, similar to products that achieve increased sales to consumers looking to improve their diets by making claims like "low-fat" or "gluten-free" while being loaded with sugar and other highly refined ingredients.

Cheerios, it should be noted, already carry a health halo with the whole-grain check mark, certified by the American Heart Association, and the claim that it lowers cholesterol, both on the box. But Cheerios are not a health food. They consist of a grain that has been ground and puffed into a processed cereal with added sugar, corn starch, and the additive tripotassium phosphate. (Used in foods for regulating acid and emulsifying, it's also used as a degreasing agent, a stain remover, and a general cleaning agent.) In short, they are a highly processed product best to be avoided.

Another problem with voluntary labeling of GMO foods is that it continues to place the burden on the consumer rather than on the producer. Consumers are currently forced to navigate a confusing and cluttered food landscape. Mandatory labeling, either at a state or federal level, would enable consumers to make one simple and clear decision about GMOs.

As it stands now, consumers might decide to opt for GMO-free Cheerios rather than an organic product without the GMO-free label. That's because, as Mark Bittman points out in The New York Times, organic companies that already have an organic label cannot put a GMO-free label on their products -- the idea being that consumers should know that organic means GMO-free -- but this is not universally understood.

In another separate but related obfuscating tactic, the food industry announced to much fanfare that it cut 6.4 trillion calories from its products in 2012. That's a big number, but what does it actually mean? Not much. This vaguely described reduction in calories might matter ever so slightly under one condition: if all calories were created equal. But, as I've written before, that is not the case. The type of calories we consume matters much more than the amount.

In a phone interview I asked Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatrician at UC San Francisco and the author of The Fat Chance Cookbook, what he though about this announcement. He replied, "If a calorie were a calorie, then the reduction of 6.4 trillion calories would make perfect sense, but if a calorie is not a calorie, the question is: Which calories are they reducing? The calories that cause disease or the calories that don't?" He added, "What we've seen is that the calories that have gone away are fat calories, not sugar calories -- that's not going to make anyone healthier."

Even according to the industry's skewed logic -- that cutting any type of calories leads to weight loss -- the 6.4 trillion calories they cut only represent about 8 percent of the total number of calories the food industry pumps out a year, which is double the amount of calories needed for every American. This convenient public relations announcement feeds into the industry's two false precepts -- that all calories are the same, and that personal responsibility lies with the consumer -- while simultaneously absolving corporations of any commitment to changing the actual content of their unhealthy food products.

"The industry hasn't dealt with the real issue," Lustig said, pointing out that "6.4 trillion calories sounds good, but the devil is in the details -- and they don't want you to know the devil or the details.

But what else can we expect from an industry that functions virtually unregulated while fighting aggressively against any kind of labeling or transparency for the consumer? When it comes to food in America, it's like the Wild West -- the industry writes its own rules, and the consumer is forced to make tough decisions in a confusing and unhealthy food landscape.

This post first appeared on Civil Eats.