Friday, February 7, 2014

Food Paranoia

There is a big movement toward eating healthier.  In fact, it’s many movements that overlap.  Grocery stores, food companies and farmers are appealing to these new trends by increasingly offering organic, non-GMO, gluten-free and other options that some consider healthier.  A sincere effort to eat better diets is admirable, especially in a society that faces an obesity epidemic, but the real motivation is primarily not about eating better or some elitist notion of serving the family only the best.  Most of the changes are driven by fear – and an unreasonable fear at that!  Here are some examples.

Irradiation:  When people hear the word radiation, or one that even sounds like it, they are filled with visions of mushroom clouds and Chernobyl.  They don’t appreciate that we are exposed to many different kinds of radiation daily:  cosmic rays from space, sunlight that people bask in, radio waves in the air, x-rays at the dentists office, and more.  The process of irradiation of food is simple and safe.  The EPA approves it, and the sites are monitored and inspected.  It’s no scarier than microwaving some popcorn (another example of radiation).

Organic:  Objections to non-organic foods (often led by a wellness coach with no scientific education or someone whose credentials read “mom and activist”) claim that the food is more nutritious and tastes better, but the primary argument is about the dangers of ingesting pesticides.  Facts from reliable and unbiased sources differ. 

 “The results of 237…studies were combined into a four-year meta-analysis — the largest scientific review to date. The conclusion:  organic foods deliver no more nutrients, and aren’t even completely pesticide-free.”  “Researchers found a significant difference in the amounts of detectable pesticide residue. Traces of pesticides were found in 38 percent of conventional produce, and in 7 percent of organic produce. (However, almost all of these levels were below government safety limits.)”  Furthermore, everyone should be washing all fruits and vegetables before eating them.  In most cases this simple practice eliminates any minor problem.  “The overwhelming conclusion of all studies is that the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.”

What about fertilizer run-off with chemical fertilizers?  Actually chemical fertilizers are easier to handle than natural fertilizer (think cow poop).  Manufacturers are required by law to list ingredients and the amounts of each soil nutrient.  New farm techniques use satellite-guided navigation on tractors, some of which don’t even need a driver to plow, plant, fertilize and harvest precise rows.  It is in the farmers’ interest to not waste fertilizer and some of the newer equipment highly increases the precision of application.  With a chemical they know what they are getting and the release timing and not just spreading natural product over the whole field waiting for it to breakdown randomly into the same nutrients.

Processing:  Other fears include manufacturing processes such as the additive derogatorily labeled Pink Slime.  This artificial crisis in the last couple of years caused a knee-jerk reaction that cost people jobs and increased the price of ground beef for everyone.  Even vegetarians get to worry needlessly about hexane-processed soy used in their veggie burgers.

Gluten-free:  This fad has pushed gluten-free annual sales to over $4.2 billion.  In the opinion of this Montreal cardiologist and many other health experts:  “If you really want to be healthier, cutting out gluten is probably not the answer” unless you have celiac disease.  According to Dr. Nancy Snyderman of NBC, “nobody is actually ‘allergic’ to gluten.”  It’s not a recognized allergy.  Reactions to wheat flour are caused by celiac disease, a wheat allergy or gluten sensitivity.  Consult a doctor about these symptoms rather than self-diagnosing and expecting this new fad to lead to magical weight loss.  The professional advice from all corners is again, eat a good, varied diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables and forget those myths promoted by celebrities.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO):  I covered this topic at length recently.  Suffice it to say that the FDA does not use the term GMO because “people have been modifying plants for thousands of years through breeding and selection.”  When they modify plants naturally, we have no better idea of their safety than when they do it by genetic engineering.  Take bananas for example.  Here is one article telling the many ways bananas are good for you.  (Of course healthy-eating advocates wrote it, so it emphasizes organic bananas – even though any pesticide on the peel ends up in the trash.)  This is followed by another article from England telling how zoo keepers don’t feed bananas to monkeys anymore because they have been (naturally) bred to be higher in sugar and lower in fiber which is bad for the monkeys’ teeth and can cause gastrointestinal problems.  These bananas were modified naturally not by GMO methods and still there were undesirable results.  Natural methods do the same thing; it just takes longer.  GMO also reduces the guesswork in plant modification.  It’s not some kind of Frankenstein lab experiment with us as the guinea pigs.  The summary of this AP article pretty much says it all:  "Genetic modifications to a plant can improve its quality, hardiness or resistance to pests or disease. Scientific studies have found no evidence that GMOs are more harmful than foods without genetic modifications." [emphasis added]

The fighters against GMO say, "We just want them labeled - we have a right to know what we're eating."  But if there weren't an underlying effort to scare people about GMO, they wouldn't really care about those contents and would resent the added cost from another labeling regulation.

This discussion of facts and myths brings us back to a kind of moderate approach:  eating a lower calorie, healthy diet and disregarding the fear tactics of the mostly well-intentioned “natural food” or “real food” promoters.  It’s not necessarily bad to make good decisions out of fear.  But when the fears are unwarranted and the decisions lead to wasting time and money looking for magical solutions, that’s not really healthy.

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