Cheerios go GMO-free. Will shoppers really see a difference?

Cheerios will no longer contain GMO's. Advocates are hailing the change as a major victory, but critics say the move is just General Mills cashing in on a cause célèbre.

Richard Rodriguez/ AP Images for Cheerios/FIle
General Mills will start producing Cheerios without GMOs, but the company still approves of using them in other products.

No longer coming to breakfast tables across America: Cheerios containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Anti-GMO advocates are hailing the change as a major victory. But critics say the move is just a corporation cashing in on a cause célèbre.

There's no question that the GMO debate is a complicated one, full of botanical intricacies that baffle the casual observer. We'd like to know if General Mills' decision to leave GMOs out of Cheerios will affect your buying habits, but first we'll explore the controversy that's headed for a supermarket aisle near you.

Cheerios Have 'Not Really' Changed

Before everyone gets all up in arms, Tom Forsythe, General Mills Vice President of Global Communications, would like you to know that the Cheerios you know and love (or at least eat if you find them in the pantry) have not undergone a big transformation. "Did we change Cheerios? No. Not really," Forsythe explained in the General Mills blog. "Original Cheerios has always been made with whole grain oats, and there are no GMO oats. We do use a small amount of corn starch in cooking, and just one gram of sugar per serving for taste. And now that corn starch comes only from non-GM corn, and our sugar is only non-GM pure cane sugar."

If the predominant ingredients in Cheerios remain the same and General Mills' official position on GMOs remains the same (hint: the corporation approves of them), then why bother switching over to non-GM ingredients? According to Forsythe the company believes "consumers may embrace it."

However, Wired called the switch an "empty gesture," and said that General Mills was just "exploiting consumer fears to sell more cereal." Plus, as the article points out, only original Cheerios are losing their GMOs: "Those Honey Nut Cheerios your kids prefer? Those may still be made with mutant sugar." Whether the decision to remove genetically modified ingredients was motivated by altruism or a more base emotion, there's no denying that General Mills is one of the largest companies to even half-heartedly embrace the production of non-GMO foods.

GMO Foods Remain Prevalent

For those optimistic anti-GMO readers thinking that the Cheerios change will soon usher in an age where mainstream grocery stores are filled with non-modified foodstuffs — don't hold your breath. However popular the idea may be, switching from GM to non-GM ingredients can be prohibitively expensive. Taking the GMOs out of Cheerios "required significant investment," Mike Siemienas, a General Mills spokesman, told the Wall Street Journal; making the cereal's other varieties without GMOs would be "difficult, if not impossible."

It's worth noting that the arguments in favor of abandoning genetic modification are not necessarily backed by the scientific community at large. A group of scientists, among them two Nobel laureates, recently wrote an editorial for Science in which they came to the defense of GM foods. "New technologies often evoke rumors of hazard. These generally fade with time when, as in this case, no real hazards emerge," the editorial read. "But the anti-GMO fever still burns brightly, fanned by electronic gossip and well-organized fear-mongering that profits some individuals and organizations."

Whether you approve of GMOs or not, we're sure to see at least a few more non-GMO foods in the not-too-distant future. As we previously mentioned, Chipotle is moving away from using GMO cooking oil and plans to pass the costs of this transition over to customers. If Cheerios and Chipotle see a boom in business after abandoning GMOs, more companies may decide to follow suit.

Marcy Bonebright is a features writer for, where this article first appeared:

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