Gluten free (GF), organic, and non-GMO all have their own devoted fanatics. But what relevance do they really have on health and life outcomes? Usually not very much, other than to make us feel better than the in-organic slobs who drive a McMuffin down their face every morning.
Free gluten? I’ll take it!
Let’s start with gluten. Poor gluten. Everyone should just bloody lay off it. Gluten is like that kid who arrives at school one morning to find suddenly everyone thinks he’s a loser, just because the cool kids decided so. Gluten never did anything to anyone, but everyone else is throwing rocks at him, so you do too.
But unless you are a coeliac and have a legitimate allergy, GF food is NOT better for you. There is absolutely no tangible, scientific proof that reducing gluten in a diet leads to any significant health outcomes. If it’s carbohydrates that are to blame for the overweight, lethargic mess you have become then avoiding bread might do you some good, but it’s not the gluten. As Katheryn Tallmadge (2013) puts it, you may feel better and lose weight from a GF diet, “But that outcome is more likely because [you’ve] cut out the excess calories found in many flour-based snack foods, and mistakenly attribute feeling better to taking out the gluten”.
Unfortunately, most self-diagnosed coeliacs won’t radically alter their diet when they go GF; instead they will, for convenience sake, simply replace gluten based products with the plethora of GF replicas that have exploded onto the market in the past few years. That is, instead of buying some fucking vegetables from coles and spending 15 minutes preparing them like a normal fucking person, they just pay an extra $2 on their dominos order for the GF option, so they can continue to ram the same shit down their face, while licking the grease from their fingers as they sit and lambast the fatties on The Biggest loser for not making the same positive life choices.
In almost all cases a GF diet is actually worse for you, especially if you still insist on eating the things you love, with the Gluten removed (i.e. GF pizza, GF bread, GF pasta). Gluten is a protein which binds food together, giving bread and wheat-based products their elasticity. When food manufacturers remove gluten, they need to find some other binding agent (like sugar or trans-fats) to bind the food. Needless to say, the gluten is probably better for you (unless of course you are actually a coeliac).
All of this aside, it dilutes an actual disease into nothing more than a fad. Only 1% of the population are actually Coeliacs, and I expect that they feel a bit uncomfortable with the fact that a disease with which they struggle daily is being co-opted by hipsters looking for another way to stay ahead of the crowd.
There is a large body of evidence showing that organic food does not have more nutrients or vitamins – it simply means that nothing inorganic has been used in the process. This, one assumes, means absolutely no fertilizers, and no pesticides. No brainer, right? But depending on where you are in the world, and what your government’s stance on food safety is, it’s likely that it does have some chemicals, but that the body governing Organic certification have said that these particular ones are OK. In Victoria, for instance, “Certain naturally occurring pesticides, including pyrethrins, light oils, copper and sulphur, and biological substances such as Bacillus thuringiensis, are permitted for use in organic farming” (2012, VicHealth). Sulphur and copper, by the way, go great with steamed broccolini.
All that aside, the fad has reached such an absurd level, that now not only can you pay double for organic food, which may have some positive effect on your health, you can also pay extra for organic cotton clothing, which is possibly healthier, but not nearly as delicious as polyester.
We all fear what we don’t understand. It’s a natural, ugly, depressing part of human psychology. I don’t understand the Russians and they scare the shit out of me. But this is an explanation, not an excuse, for blatant ignorance. You happened to read (half of) the article about Monsanto’s GMOs and now your mind is made up. GMOs, bad. Organic, good! A bit like calling Angela Merkel a nazi, because, well, she’s a German chancellor, right.. and, you know, HITLER.
Some forms of Genetic Modification, such as limiting the fertility of their GMO crops, are undeniably bad for farmers and do not help in the fight against global poverty and hunger.
The Galactic Empire of the Sith Monsanto, for example has created a strain of GMOs which cannot be re-planted, effectively meaning that farmers were required to repurchase their seed stock from Monsanto every season. This is a practise which, you have to admit, kind of spits in the face of our 8,000-year history of agriculture, and is probably not designed to increase agricultural output, just Monsanto’s profits. These types of modifications, which instead of helping to build global agricultural output actually hamper it, are undeniably bad, but should not be confused with the thousand of other GMOs which do help to increase output. You just don’t hear about them, because the good GMOs – such as disease resistant Papaya and drought resistant rice – are good news, and that shit just doesn’t sell newspapers.
For something that has the potential to end global poverty whilst having no proven, tangible negative side effects on health or the environment, GMOs sure have a bad wrap. Prominent, intelligent people like Bill Gates have supported GMOs as a way to end global hunger and poverty, whereas not-so-prominent and not-so-intelligent people and organisations continue to rail against them. Unfortunately for all the negative nancys out there, GMOs have made up a large part of American foodstuffs since the mid ‘90s, and so twenty years has elapsed since their mainstream adoption. That should be plenty of time to find a reason not to eat GMO foods, should one exist, but even today there is no conclusive evidence of GMOs being harmful to health, despite a massive body of research into it. Just a whole lot of misinformation on sites like www.organicliving.com and www.mysandyvagina.com
First world problems
While the modern obsession with health and wellbeing is a positive step away from the consumerist fast-food horror show that has led to lifestyle diseases becoming the biggest cause of death in Australia, it is being hijacked by hyperbole and misinformation. With one in eight people on the planet suffering from malnutrition, it seems just a little self-indulgent to, with absolutely no scientific justification, reject foods and food production techniques which have the potential to drastically increase agricultural output and thus help alleviate world hunger. If we can keep the discourse rational and base discussions on evidence, not anecdotes, we can offset the potential risks of GMOs and oversee the largest single advancement in our eight-thousand-year history of agriculture. No biggy.
Strawbridge, H, 2013, Going gluten-free just because? Here’s what you need to know, Published February 20, 2013, 2:20 pm, accessed at http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/going-gluten-free-just-because-heres-what-you-need-to-know-201302205916 at 12:29pm 11-6-14
Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS; Margaret L. Brandeau, PhD…, 2012, Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review, Annals of Internal Medicine, 4 September 2012, Vol 157, No. 5>
Tallmadge, K, 2013, Go Gluten Free? Most People Shouldn’t (Op-Ed), LiveScience, Published June 28, 2013 07:16pm ET, accessed via http://www.livescience.com/37855-gluten-free-craze.html at 12:05pm 11-06-14
Hom, L, 2012, Berkeley University, Pesticides in Organic farming, Berkeley University Online, accessed via http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~lhom/organictext.html at 4:04pm 11-6-14
VicHealth, 2012, Organic Food, Published on http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au, Produced in consultation with Deakin university, accessed via http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/organic_food at 3:57pm 11-6-14
Golanky, I, 2000, Applying the Precautionary Principle to Genetically Modified Crops, Weidenbaum Center Working Paper No. PS 157