Make no mistake about it. General Mills’ introduction of Cheerios sporting the label “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” is a mere marketing ploy and has nothing to do with health or nutrition. Let’s start the dissection of this blatant attempt to capitalize on the anti-GMO paranoia by looking at the main ingredient in Cheerios, namely oats. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century writer who compiled the first authoritative dictionary of the English language whimsically defined oats as the grain “eaten by people in Scotland, but fit only for horses in England.” A clever Scot supposedly retorted “that’s why England has such good horses, and Scotland has such fine men!”
Modern science, as it turns out, supports the ancient Scotch penchant for oats. A form of soluble fiber in the grain known as beta glucan has been shown to reduce levels of cholesterol in the blood which in turn is expected to reduce the risk of heart disease. You couldn’t tell this by the Scottish experience, though. Scotland has one of the highest rates of heart disease in the world. It seems all that haggis, refined carbs and a lack of veggies is too great a challenge for Scotch oats to cope with. Actually you need at least 3 grams of beta glucan daily to have any effect on blood cholesterol and that translates to roughly a cup of cooked oat bran or a cup and a half of oatmeal. Or about three servings of Cheerios. And that makes the cholesterol lowering claims prominently featured on the Cheerios box ring pretty hollow. There are far better ways to reduce cholesterol than gorging on Cheerios.
At least, though, the cholesterol lowering claim has some scientific merit. The “no GMO” claim has none. To start with, there are no genetically modified oats grown anywhere, at least not in the current sense of the term which refers to the splicing of specific foreign genes into the DNA of a seed. Such “recombinant DNA technology: is generally used to confer resistance to herbicides or protection from insects, but resistance to drought and enhancement with nutrients hold great potential. Although it is this new-fangled technology that garners attention these days, the fact is that virtually everything we eat has been genetically modified in some fashion over the years, either by traditional crossbreeding or through the use of chemicals or radiation both of which can scramble the genetic material in crops. The latter processes are based on the hope that a useful mutation will occur by chance, but basically it comes down to a roll of the dice. Just do enough experiments and a valuable mutant may surface. Radiation breeding has produced many varieties of rice, wheat, peanuts and bananas that are now widely grown. If you are eating red grapefruit, or sipping premium Scotch whisky made from barley, you are enjoying the products of this technology.
So if “genetically modified” oats do not exist, what sort of monsters is General Mills protecting us from? As is the case with any commercial cereal, Cheerios contains a number of ingredients with nutritious whole grain oats at the top of the list. Next come modified corn starch and sugar. It is to these two ingredients that General Mills refers when it talks about “GMO-free.” Much of the corn and some of the sugar beets grown in North America are genetically modified to resist herbicides and ward off insects. But by the time the highly processed starch and sugar extracted from these plants reach the food supply, they retain no vestige of any genetic modification. There is no way to distinguish the starch or sugar derived from genetically modified plants from the conventional varieties. The GMO-free Cheerios will not differ in any way from the currently marketed version except that the price may eventually reflect the greater cost of sourcing ingredients from plants that do not benefit from recombinant DNA technology.
The reason for the addition of sugar to Cheerios, actually in small doses compared with other cereals, is obvious. But why is corn starch added, and why is it modified? Nobody likes soggy cereal, and a thin layer of modified starch sprayed onto the little “O”s helps keep the interior dry. The modification in this case has nothing to do with genetic modification. Starch is a mixture of essentially two “polymers,” or giant molecules, both composed of units of glucose joined together. In amylose, the glucose units form a straight chain, while in amylopectin, the main glucose strand features many branches of shorter glucose chains. The properties of any starch depend on the relative proportion of amylose and amylopectin as well as on the degree of branching.
Starch has many uses in the food industry. It can thicken sauces, prevent French dressing from separating, substitute for fat or keep cereals dry. But these uses require starches of specific composition, either in terms of the length of the glucose chains or the degree of branching. In other words, the native starch has to be “modified” by treatment with acids, enzymes or oxidizing agents. There is no safety issue here, modified starches are approved food additives. Of course that doesn’t prevent scientifically illiterate alarmists from scaring the public by blathering on about modified starch being used as wallpaper glue and insinuating that any food made with it will literally stick to our ribs. The modified starch used in glue, namely a “carboxymethylated” version, is not the same as used in food, but even if it were, so what? Just because water can be used to clean garage floors and is found in tumours doesn’t mean we can’t drink it. Talking about washing garage floors, Cheerios also contains tripotassium phosphate, a powerful cleaning agent. It is added in small amounts to adjust the acidity of the mix used to formulate the cereal. This too has raised the ire of some ill-informed activists who do not realize that we consume all sorts of naturally occurring phosphates regularly in our diet. Quacking about the dangers of tripotassium phosphate in Cheerios makes about as much sense as hyping Cheerios that are “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients.”
Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D., is the Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society and teaches a variety of courses in McGill’s Chemistry Department and in the Faculty of Medicine with emphasis on health issues, including aspects of “Alternative Medicine”. He is well known for his informative and entertaining public lectures on topics ranging from the chemistry of love to the science of aging. Using stage magic to make scientific points is one of his specialties.