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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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