Sweet spot: Large food companies dumping GMO sweeteners for non-GMO, organic options

Published: January 27, 2016
Issue:

Hershey’s switch to non-GMO sugar highlights industry move to non-GMO options

Major food and beverage manufacturers are considering organic and non-GMO verified sweetener options to replace sugar and GMO-risk beet sugar and high fructose corn syrup in their products. Suppliers of sweeteners such as agave, stevia, tapioca syrup, and erythritol report increasing inquiries from larger companies wanting clean labeled products with simpler ingredients.

Hershey’s move to non-GMO sugar

Hershey’s decision to replace sugar from genetically modified sugar beets with non-GMO cane sugar spotlighted the industry’s move to non-GMO sweeteners. Hershey switched to cane sugar because of GMO concerns raised by its customers.

The move was criticized by sugar beet farmers and processors who say there is no difference between sugar from GMO beets and that from sugar cane. Sugar beet producers are also concerned that more companies will follow Hershey’s lead.

Mark Anderson, president of Captain Drake, a Minneapolis-based supplier of organic, Non-GMO Project verified sweeteners, thinks that will happen. “If they don’t switch back to non-GMO beets they will lose market share and sales,” he says.

In 2009, the sugar beet processors made an industry-wide decision to switch to all GM, Roundup Ready sugar beets, not allowing for a non-GMO option. Now, industry leaders say that farmers cannot go back to growing non-GMO beets.

Anderson disputes that claim. “If non-GMO seed was available today, all sugar beets would be non-GMO,” he says.

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Big Food “wants in” non-GMO and organic markets

Leading beverage manufacturers such as Coca Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr. Pepper are looking at alternatives such as stevia, xylitol, and erythritol, according to Anderson. The demand for organic and non-GMO sweeteners “increases daily,” he says.

PepsiCo recently announced it would introduce an organic Gatorade in 2016, which will require the use of an organic sweetener. Conventional Gatorade contains high fructose corn syrup made from GM corn.

Last year, Kraft Foods Group ditched high fructose corn syrup in favor of cane sugar in the company’s Capri Sun drinks and line of barbecue sauces.

Sweetener suppliers see other major food and beverage companies considering organic and non-GMO alternatives.

“Within the last 12 months we have seen a lot of inquiries, including from many larger multinationals, about the supply availability of both organic and non-GMO sweeteners,” says Ken Valdivia, CEO of Sweet Additions, which supplies rice and tapioca syrups. “Bigger companies are analyzing what’s available in case they switch.”

Tonya Lofgren, marketing manager at Ciranda, which supplies a range of organic and non-GMO verified sweeteners agrees. “Without a doubt there has been more interest in the last two years from ‘Big Food,’ ” she says. “They’ve seen the growth in the organic and non-GMO markets, and they want in.”

Another factor driving demand for alternative sweeteners is the industry trend toward “clean” labels with simpler, fewer, and non-GMO ingredients, according to Sarah Miller, director of Wholesome Sweeteners, which supplies organic, non-GMO verified, and Fair Trade sweeteners.

“We attribute increased interest from large companies to consumer demand for clean labels, for sustainable organic agriculture, eliminating harmful artificial ingredients, and transparency,” Miller says.

Reducing sugar in foods

Growing concerns over sugar laden foods is another factor driving demand, says Ben Fleischer, CEO of Pyure Brands, LLC, the leading supplier of organic stevia. “We’re obviously in a time of sugar reduction,” he says.

Fleischer cites new federal dietary guidelines that recommend limiting added sugars to 10% of daily calories, or about 12.5 teaspoons of sugar per day for an average adult.

“That’s a big deal,” he says. “About 600 beverage companies have at least 100% of that recommended limit in their products, and another 100 have more than the recommended amount.”

As a result, Miller says conventional sugar sales are declining while sales of organic and alternative sweeteners are growing.

Organic and non-GMO sweeteners

The leading alternative sweeteners include honey, organic cane sugar, agave, stevia, erythritol, rice and tapioca syrups, monk fruit, and coconut sugar, among others.

Honey is a hot seller right now, according to several suppliers. “Consumers recognize honey as a simple ingredient that most people have been familiar with since childhood,” Lofgren says.

Agave is a top seller at Wholesome Sweeteners. Derived from the agave plant in Jalisco, Mexico, agave is a minimally processed sweetener that is sweeter than sugar, but only needed in small amounts. “It’s a low glycemic sweetener that won’t spike blood sugar like sucrose,” Miller says.

Food companies are looking at rice and tapioca syrup, which are both non-GMO, as alternatives to GMO-risk beet sugar and corn syrup. “A lot of companies don’t want corn-based sweeteners because of negative connotations around high fructose corn syrup and the GMO issue,” Valdivia says.

“There’s been a surge of manufacturers wishing to replace GMO corn syrup with organic or non-GMO tapioca syrup. It’s one of the easier substitutions to make from a formulation standpoint,” Lofgren says.

Stevia is also seeing strong sales, according to Fleischer. It is derived from the stevia rebaudiana plant, which is in the sunflower family, and is grown in Asia and South America. It has 350 times the sweetness of sugar.

Pyure Brands stevia is sold in Wal-Mart, Target, Albertson’s, and other major retailers. “We’ve positioned ourselves for scalability to reach the mass market,” Fleischer says.

Coca Cola and PepsiCo have developed their own stevia-based sweeteners.

Erythritol is another alternative, non-GMO sweetener derived from corn. It has similar characteristics and consistency to sugar with 70% of its sweetness.

Austrade sells a non-GMO beet sugar sourced from Europe. “Some companies prefer the ‘flavor’ of beet versus cane sugar in certain applications especially for fruit juices, beverages and related juice products,” says Gary Bartl, president of Austrade, who also points out that the beet sugar is identity preserved non-GMO.

Non-GMO verification

A growing number of alternative sweetener suppliers are getting their products Non-GMO Project verified.

“The Non-GMO Project verification was mainly driven by our customers, but we were also seeking a certification company with credibility,” Valdivia says.

Lofgren says non-GMO verification is become more important. “Anyone involved in the food industry has read the headlines on GMO labeling, and with the recent announcement from Campbell that they will begin labeling GMOs, I don’t see it letting up any time soon.”

Though she also says there is a disconnect among consumer knowledge of non-GMO and organic. “A sizeable chunk of the population still does not understand that organic certified products are not allowed to contain GMOs,” Lofgren says.

“It’s all about transparency,” Fleischer says. “Consumers are asking what is on the label and why. Non-GMO verification gives them peace of mind, trust, transparency, and traceability.”

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, 2016