On the seventh day, the devil created gluten.

(the truth about gluten, GMOs, and other things we try to avoid)

When I walk around the grocery store, it seems odd to me that packages so proudly proclaim what they don’t contain. It wouldn’t take much of a scavenger hunt to find packages labelled non-GMO, gluten-free, no antibiotics, and hormone-free. We could even throw in organic, because in reality, it’s a negative term–describing the kinds of farming practices that are not allowed. To find all of these labels, you probably wouldn’t have to go any farther than your own refrigerator–I know I wouldn’t. And it’s not limited to food; I wasn’t shocked to encounter a bottle of gluten-free laundry detergent during a stroll down the baby aisle.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with avoiding these things. But the fact that a particular food is organic, gluten-free, and totally devoid of GMOs (whatever those are) doesn’t imply that it’s healthful. In reality, the biggest harm posed by these labels is that they take the focus off of what is in the product. And in many cases, the gluten-free label is placed on foods that couldn’t possibly contain gluten. The same goes for GMOs–another case in which the label is often a meaningless marketing ploy.

So why do manufacturers put these labels on their products? Because it sells. In our society, these negative labels have come to be associated with health. We focus on avoiding things that we think may be harmful, even if there’s no evidence to support those fears. And then there are those who capitalize on these fears, promoting a lifestyle of exclusion as the ideal to which we should all aspire. But it’s worth taking a closer look at the things we try so hard to avoid.

GMOs

Among the more recent targets of natural food advocates are GMOs, or genetically-modified organisms. Sounds scary, right? But before you vow never to contaminate your body with these substances, you should understand what they are. GMOs are crops whose genes have been altered to provide some advantage over the naturally-occurring plant. This advantage may be resistance to insects or fungi, drought tolerance, or other changes that make it easier to farm or more productive. Those that promote resistance to pests or diseases reduce the use of pesticides. The benefits of GMO crops include the ability to feed a larger number of people at a lower cost and with less land devoted to farming–two perks that could have a huge impact in the US as well as globally.

There are a lot of conspiracy theories about GMOs–that the agriculture industry is trying to poison us, or that they were developed solely to increase profits for the companies that produce our food. I certainly won’t argue that GMO crops have the potential to be more profitable than their conventional counterparts, but I would also caution against assuming that because something is profitable, it’s also evil. Innovation is driven by the potential for profit, and a company’s financial success doesn’t imply corruption.

Medically speaking, there’s no evidence that GMO crops (or meat from the animals that eat them) cause any health problems at all. The modified proteins from these foods are broken down in your gut just like any other protein, absorbed as small peptides, and converted into whatever the cells in your body happen to need. It’s a bit like disassembling a Lego structure to build something new–once it’s broken into individual blocks, it doesn’t much matter how it looked before.

Gluten

Ah, gluten…this one is a little complicated because–unlike GMOs–there’s a small subset of people who should avoid gluten entirely. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, a little background:

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Any food that is made from these grains may contain gluten. Conversely, foods that aren’t made with these grains (for instance, Jelly Bellys) don’t contain gluten. But the fact that jelly beans are gluten-free does not imply that they are nutritious.

The one group of people who should absolutely avoid gluten, even in tiny amounts, is those who have celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that affects about 1 in 140 Americans (including many children). People with celiac disease develop antibodies to gluten that also react to the lining of the intestine. When they eat foods containing gluten, their immune systems attack their bodies, most often resulting in gastrointestinal symptoms, but frequently affecting other organ systems as well. If they stop eating gluten, the symptoms resolve. Celiac disease is a very serious condition, but one that responds very well to eliminating gluten from the diet.

But for  the vast majority of us without celiac disease, there’s no reason to avoid gluten. Although the disease process is different, the concept is similar to food allergies. For instance, I’m allergic to shellfish; but that doesn’t mean you should avoid feeding shrimp to your children. I have friends with life-threatening allergies to peanuts, but I eat peanuts all the time and don’t worry a bit. Similarly, gluten causes severe symptoms for those affected by celiac disease, but for the other 99.3% of us, it’s a perfectly safe part of our diet.

Recently, there has been a recent push for a diagnosis called “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” These are people who have no identifiable abnormalities when tested, but that have symptoms which improve when they avoid gluten. There’s some controversy as to whether this condition even exists, and it’s quite possible that when people focus on avoiding gluten, they make better food choices overall and feel better as a result. There’s some ongoing research in this area, and it will be interesting to see how this one plays out. For now, there’s no compelling evidence for avoiding gluten in anyone without celiac disease. (But if it makes you feel better, go for it.)

Most people who avoid gluten do so not because of a medical condition, but because gluten has been vilified by the health-food industry, and because gluten-free products are marketed as being more nutritious. They’re not. (Unless you swap bread and cookies for spinach and blueberries…but you can see how the difference might not be due to gluten.) One last important point: if you feel that you or your child have serious medical problems with gluten, it’s important not to avoid gluten prior to being tested for celiac disease. Cut gluten before the test, and you’ll make the test unreliable.

Antibiotics

This is an important topic, but for a different reason than you might think. The bigger concern here isn’t whether your food contains antibiotics (because if it does, it’s in exceedingly small amounts). Rather, the problem is with the impact of widespread agricultural use of antibiotics on the development of resistant organisms. I’ve written before about antibiotic resistance–it’s a topic that truly scares me, and one we really need to address. Thousands of people in our country die every year because of resistant bacteria, and the projections for the future are terrifying.

Doctors have played a huge role in creating this problem. Unnecessary and inappropriate antibiotic prescriptions breed bacteria that we can’t kill. But even if every doctor in the country started using antibiotics responsibly, antibiotic resistance would remain a threat due to the antibiotics used in the farming industry. Farmers use antibiotics not only to treat sick animals, or even to prevent diseases, but to make the animals grow faster as well. This practice was discovered accidentally, but has been ongoing for decades.

The impact of agricultural antibiotic use on our health is indirect. It isn’t the amount that we ingest in food that matters, but the fact that using antibiotics in this way contributes to a very deadly problem. While avoiding antibiotics in food probably won’t make a difference in your health, it’s important to take efforts to decrease the inappropriate use of these life-saving medications.

Hormones

For decades, there have been about the health effects of added hormones in our food–most famously, recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Hormones are given to animals to increase milk production or speed up growth, making the farming process more efficient.

rBGH itself is not much of a concern, as it is broken down into small pieces within the GI tract before being absorbed. (Its structure is similar to insulin, which can’t be given orally because it would have no effect.) The big concern about rBGH is that it may increase levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF), a hormone also produced by humans. IGF is essential for proper growth, but at higher levels, can also be associated with increased cancer rates. There have been studies that show increased IGF levels in people who drink more milk, but there’s never been a direct comparison between IGF levels in people who drink milk from cows that have or haven’t been treated with rBGH. But since people who drink soy milk have similar elevations in IGF levels, this probably has more to do with the nutritional content of milk than any hormones it may contain. (The thought is that when the body has access to more calories and nutrition, it makes more hormones to encourage growth.)

Many cows raised for meat are also treated with estrogen and other sex hormones to increase their rate of growth. There has been some concern that these hormones contribute to early puberty, which has been on the rise for years. But the levels of these hormones in our food–even food from animals treated with rBGH–are very low in comparison with those produced by our own bodies. It’s more likely that earlier puberty is due to other factors, like increasing rates of obesity or the higher calorie concentration of a primarily animal-based diet.

It’s also worth noting that all animals (and all humans) produce hormones, and there is no such thing as hormone-free milk or meat. It’s unclear at this time how much of an effect (if any) these added hormones have on our health. But for those looking to minimize exposure to hormones, it’s also important to avoid soy products and certain essential oils (tea tree and lavender)–all of which contain phytoestrogens that have been shown to have feminizing effects in children.

Organic

The requirements for certified organic food exclude everything I’ve discussed above except for gluten, and they also place strict restrictions on the types of fertilizers, pesticides, and farming practices that are used. Because it costs more to produce food organically (and because organic farmers like to make money, too), the price of organic food is significantly higher. Many people assume that organically-produced food is ideal, but there are a few things to consider.

  1. There is not sufficient evidence to show that organic food is more nutritious. Really. A few studies have shown slightly higher vitamin C levels in organic produce…but other studies have shown that it doesn’t make a difference. Organic crops have higher levels of phytochemicals like lycopene, polyphenols, or resveratrol, but the effects of these differences on a person’s health (if any) are unknown.
  2. If the goal is to avoid pesticides on produce, rinsing the food well is probably sufficient. Some studies have shown slightly higher concentrations of pesticides in the urine of people who eat conventional produce, but that’s the body doing what it’s supposed to–getting rid of them. In order to say for sure that eating organic foods has an impact on health, we need studies comparing long-term health outcomes–not urine specimens.
  3. Organic farmers use fertilizers and pesticides, too–they just use organic ones. And just as there are health concerns about conventional pesticides, organic pesticides aren’t inherently safe, either. Remember, the fact that something is “natural” doesn’t imply that it’s safe.
  4. When produce is grown organically, some people don’t rinse it. But the most commonly used organic fertilizer is manure, and organic foods are still susceptible to bacterial contamination. Organically-produced foods have been associated with outbreaks of E. coli, Listeria, Campylobacter, and Salmonella. And even organic Salmonella can get pretty nasty.
  5. For some families, the increased cost of organic products limits their ability to provide an overall balanced diet. And for many others, focusing on organic foods distracts them from the more important goal of choosing foods which are inherently nutritious. Conventional blackberries beat organic gummy bears every time.

Another consideration for many families who purchase organic foods is the manner in which they are produced. It’s hard to argue with that. Organic farmers tend to observe more humane farming practices–although it’s certainly possible to raise happy, grass-fed cattle without organic certification. I’m not dismissing the benefits of organic farming–just pointing out that organic foods may not be the nutritional nirvana we’d like to think they are.


In summary:

We tend to get caught up worrying about what isn’t in our food, when we should be more concerned about what is. Focusing on purchasing organic foods or avoiding GMOs distracts us from paying attention to the nutritional quality of our choices, and many people fall into the trap of thinking that “natural” foods are inherently healthful–a notion that simply isn’t true. If McDonald’s started serving Double Quarter Pounders made from organic, hormone-free cattle raised without antibiotics or GMO feed (and served on gluten-free buns, of course)…they still wouldn’t be a good choice for dinner. And in general, conventional produce is far superior to packaged foods–no matter what the packages don’t contain.

It’s very possible that the science in some of these areas will continue to evolve and provide some more definitive answers on things we should (or shouldn’t) be eating. But until then–whether you choose to avoid these ingredients or not–try to keep your primary focus on what is in your food, rather than what isn’t.

As always, thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts or answer your questions–just leave them in the comments section below or on my Facebook page. -Chad

As always, your comments are welcomed (even if you happen to disagree). I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Please try to keep it civil--I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

7 thoughts on “On the seventh day, the devil created gluten.

  1. Interesting read and Absolutely True! The manufacturers have embrace this and market it shamelessly. People do not understand what these terms mean, and will buy 4 ounces of “guten free” salad dressing for 8 dollars when they can by 12 ounces of plain salad dressing for 2 dollars and neither contain gluten.
    There are some surprises like soy sauce, twizzlers, flavored potato chips all contain gluten. So in some cases it is necessary to dig a little deeper.

  2. I have many delayed-reaction food allergies, which I found out about after doing elimination diets followed by food challenges. The reaction starts about half an hour after eating the food and comes on fully about 4 hours after eating, and lasts about 4 days. It’s a sick, mentally foggy state where I can’t do much, and it makes me feel irritable and emotionally hypersensitized. I’ve had various other symptoms like frequent urination, back and belly pain, itching generally over my body.
    I probably have celiac disease as well.
    I’ve read lots of research on food hypersensitivities (allergies that don’t show up on skin or blood tests for IgE-mediated food allergy). The research seems clear that they exist.
    Often people who have multiple food hypersensitivities are sensitive to wheat.
    In that sense I believe non-celiac gluten sensitivity exists, although it might actually be a reaction to a non-gluten protein in wheat.

  3. I’m sorry but I have to point out to you, with respect, that your information on GMOs is woefully lacking. They are crops that are genetically altered by using genes from different species to change characteristics of plants – cross-species hybridization. One of the main characteristics of GMO crops is their ability to withstand highly toxic glyphosate (a carcinogen according to the WHO) – which is a broad spectrum chelator / pesticide. GMO corn is bred to produce its own toxin – BT – which is regulated by the EPA. It is a pesticide that causes the stomachs of insects to bleed out if they ingest the kernel. GMOs are particularly toxic to humans as glyphosate causes the inhibition of cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes in our bodies (http://www.mdpi.com/1099-4300/15/4/1416) and it also destroys the villi of the gut wall which contributes to inflammation and IBS. Wheat crops are sprayed with glyphosate as a desiccant before harvest so even though wheat is not a GMO crop, it is wreaking havoc on our health because of the combined effects of glyphosate and gliadin (the wheat protein). Gliadin also produces zonulin which destroys tight junctions in the gut and can lead to toxins & food proteins entering the blood stream causing allergies & inflammation. There is also new evidence that shows that glyphosate is allowing aluminum to cross the blood brain barrier (http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/05/08/heavy-metals-glyphosate-health-effects.aspx). So I hope that you look into this issue a bit more as you seem to have a big following. I wish you well. Thanks.

    • Eileen–

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’d like to respond to you, but please don’t take my response personally. I appreciate the civil tone of your comments, and it’s not you I disagree with, but your sources.

      The first article you referenced is a lengthy list of speculations based on conjecture, animal studies, and unproven associations. Apparently I’m not the only one that feels this way; the journal editors preface the article with this word of caution:

      “Expression of Concern Note added on 17 September 2015 by the Editors: The editors of the journal have been alerted to concerns over potential bias in opinions and bias in the choice of citation sources used in this article. We note that the authors stand by the content as published. Since the nature of the claims against the paper concern speculation and opinion, and not fraud or academic misconduct, the editors would like to make readers aware that the approach to collating literature citations for this article was likely not systematic and may not reflect the spectrum of opinions on the issues covered by the article.”

      The truth is, we have no evidence that GMOs cause health problems in humans. I’m not saying that it’s impossible or that new evidence (based on human studies) won’t emerge. Science is always open to being disproven (and so am I). But given what we know, the current level of hysteria about GMOs is unjustified.

      The second article (from Joe Mercola’s website, with which I’ll likely never agree about anything) is full of scary speculation as well, making all sorts of connections that may or may not actually exist. There are some super-shady statistics to make it seem as though sunlight exposure, sulfates, aluminum, Roundup, and autism are causally related…what’s lacking is any evidence that this connection exists.

      I thought the links might take me to sources, but they just go to other articles on Mercola’s site. I also would like to point out that Joe Mercola makes a ton of money advertising on his website and selling a 90-day supply of multivitamins for $130. His site has a huge following because scaring people is powerful. But the vast majority of his posts have only very distorted connections to actual science. I’ll never make as much money on my site as he does (especially without a source of revenue). Telling people to stop worrying about stuff and just eat quality food is far from lucrative.

      Again, thanks for taking the time to comment, and for doing so in a kind way. You may disagree with me, and that’s fine. I have no problems with people choosing to avoid GMOs, or doing more research into their safety. But given the best evidence we have, there’s no reason to think that GMOs present a significant health threat to humans. And avoiding them is certainly not as important as choosing nutritious foods.

      -Chad

      • “We have no evidence that GMOs cause health problems in humans. I’m not saying that it’s impossible or that new evidence (based on human studies) won’t emerge. Science is always open to being disproven … I have no problems with people choosing to avoid GMOs”
        Then it would make sense to support some kind of non-prejudicial labeling requirement for GMOs.
        Labels should be honest about what the product is. They can also tout any advantages that it has. For example, “Stays fresh longer, with genes from (whatever)!” That would tell people that the food is GM, in a positive way.
        Even if one believes that any concerns about GMOs are bogus, it’s unethical to hide the GMO-ness of foods from people who have those (supposedly bogus) concerns. Just like it would be unethical to sneak pork into the food of a Jewish person who keeps kosher.
        Let GMOs sell themselves based on their merits, rather than because people don’t know what they’re getting.
        And, as you say, maybe there are real health concerns with some GM foods. It can happen, just as breeding could result in foods that are a health hazard.
        How could these health concerns be identified if people aren’t told whether they’re eating those foods?
        Labeling can and should be done so as to respect the concerns of both pro- and anti-GMO people.

      • Nice job critically appraising the articles! You must have done well on your Biostatistics portions of the Steps and ABP Boards!

    • Here’s the thing about GMOs, Eileen. EVERY CROP, including Organics, are genetically modified. However, the only one “they” (the billion $$ organic industry) want labeled is crops engineered by transgenesis (rDNA insertion.) Organic crops can still be GM by cross hybridization or mutagenesis (which uses radiation.) These method dis can change tens of thousands of genes in a plant. Transgenesis changes ONE. So why the big hullabaloo?!
      Also, when it comes to glyphosate there are a few considerations to make: round-up ready crops may only need 0.75-1lb Per Acre sprayed of glyphosate whereas organic crops may need up to 20lbs per acre sprayed of rotenone or copper sulfate (“organic” pesticide & fungicides- of which lead and arsenic could also be considered in this class.) When it comes to toxicity, glyphosate has an LD50 (Mexican toxicity) of 5600 mg/kg. That means you have to ingest 5600 mg per kg of body weight for it to be toxic. To put that in perspective, table salt has an LD50 of 3000 so you have to ingest LESS table salt to have to toxic effect that you would at a higher dose of glyphosate. Basically, it’s safer than table salt.
      The LD50s of rotenone and copper sulfate respectively are 132-1500, and 300 mg/kg. So to eat organic, you are eating something that had a more toxic substance sprayed at a higher concentration on it. And all because you are afraid of “the chemikillz.” Does really add up, does it?! Organic is a HUGE scam. Also, a GMO could create gluten free wheat so for all those with legitimate Celiac’s, here’s hoping, eh? 😉

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