News & Analysis September 2013: GMOs

Supplement companies have begun to adjust their supply chains under pressure from the non-GMO movement

Non-GMO certification has overtaken the food industry, but it’s still fairly new to dietary supplements. 

Supplement companies have begun to adjust their supply chains under pressure from the non-GMO movement, but there is still a long road ahead for non-GMO verification of even the most common supplement ingredients. Market forces, such as Whole Foods Market’s requirement that all products sold through its stores be labeled for genetically modified content by 2018, as well as political forces, including numerous state-level labeling bills and mounting pressure at a national level, have prompted supplement companies to take non-GMO certification and supply chain management more seriously.

However, the supply side of the supplement industry – a market still based primarily on waste-stream ingredients from large agribusinesses – still has transparency, documentation and sourcing issues to be sorted out before a non-GMO supply chain can reach adequate strength.


Problem ingredients

Some of the most common nutrients found in a multivitamin come from crops notoriously subject to genetic engineering. Vitamin C, for example, is commonly derived from corn starch or corn sugar. Natural vitamin E comes from soy-based vegetable oil distillates.

Even ingredients not sourced specifically from GM crops may struggle to achieve non-GMO certification since the byproducts used in their production often come from GM sources. Here are a few examples:

Dairy-strain probiotics from cows fed GM feed

Herbs, botanicals and fermentation-grown vitamins extracted with corn-based solvents

Common enzymes like bromelain and papain standardized with corn starch

Yeast grown on sugar beets


Supply up, transparency down

According to Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Alliance, suppliers believe they will secure an adequate quantity of non-GMO nutrients within the next 24 to 30 months. “With few exceptions, there will be supply,” he said.

Since the association launched its Non-GMO Project Verified certification in 2008, the label has become one of the fastest-growing certifications in the food market. For many companies, though, tracking down non-GMO ingredients isn’t the challenge – it’s getting Non-GMO Project verification for those ingredients.

“Currently all of our products are non-GMO,” said Bethany Davis, regulatory manager at FoodState, maker of the MegaFood brand of whole-food supplements, “but we still have trouble getting certified. Most suppliers will give you standard documentation, but that’s not deep enough for the Non-GMO Project.” She said requests for non-GMO affidavits to suppliers one step up the chain often lead to radio silence, most likely because such documentation – which might need to include testing down to the farm level – is not in the supplier’s normal scope of business.

“It’s just not standard to our industry yet,” said Davis.

Enzymes are a common trouble area. If your bromelain, for example, is standardized with some sort of corn starch, that corn starch needs to be verified as non-GMO. But even that level of certification may not be enough.

“You might even get documentation on that corn starch that says it’s non-GMO,” said Davis. “The problem is that they’re testing the corn starch, not the starting corn.” To avoid this necessity for farm-level testing, FoodState uses pure enzymes without standardizing agents.


Buying power

So what leverage do supplement manufacturers have to get their suppliers to meet their transparency needs? “It has a lot to do with buying power,” said Davis. To that end, FoodState has organized the Non-GMO Working Group, a collective of manufacturers working together to locate non-GMO suppliers and pressure existing suppliers into providing adequate documentation for certification.

The number of supplement companies with non-GMO certification on the agenda is small but growing, Israelsen says. Since March 2013, when Whole Foods Market made its non-GMO announcement at Expo West, the awareness level among dietary supplement companies has seen “magnitudes of growth.” He estimates that about 20-25 percent of supplement companies are actively allocating staff or spending money to find out if non-GMO verification will work for them.

“They’re doing the competitive analysis,” Israelsen said. “‘If this was chess, did we just lose our knight?’ That’s the question they’re asking now.”

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