Gluten-free is one of the more recent buzzwords going around the health community and food industry. Gluten is a protein found in certain grains, among them wheat, barley, and rye, and it appears by pseudonyms in a variety of packaged, processed foods. In fact, gluten is pretty ubiquitous and can be found in your favorite items listed as modified starch, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, emulsifiers, caramel color, mixed tocopherols, the nonspecific "flavoring," non-dairy creamer, stabilizers, vegetable gum, and many others. What's all the fuss? Yes, gluten intolerance, or celiac disease, which is characterized by the body's inability to digest this protein, can cause diarrhea, weight loss, and malnutrition. Celiac disease involves damage to the portion of the digestive tract known as the small intestine, and it can set up sufferers for cancer down the road.
But celiac disease is relatively rare. Only about 1 in 135 Americans have this condition, and yet take a spin around the aisles of your local health food store and the proportion of people reflexively grabbing for foods labeled gluten-free is usually much higher, like maybe 1 in 2. Yes, we think it is a good idea to avoid gluten. Wheat and other grains are just not nutritious enough to warrant their consumption. Take it a step further and avoid packaged foods altogether. By buying whole, unprocessed foods you avoid what is arguably the biggest potential threat to your health: genetically modified foods.
GMOs have undergone DNA modification to alter their genes, usually to confer pesticide resistance so large manufacturers can grow more of them. But the consequences of eating these foods on humans has not been adequately explored, since to date no human studies have been conducted. Or more accurately, the American population is currently being subjected to any potential hazards involved with eating these foods every time we go to the market and purchase them. But studies in animals abound, and the findings are unsettling. The Institute of Responsible Technology reports numerous animal studies which showed associations between eating GMO plants and death, low birth rate, failure to thrive, testicular dysfunction, infertility, immune dysfunction, allergies, and precancer.
The most common GMO? Corn. Corn derivatives are commonly found in packaged goods, including chips, cereals, breads and pastries. Foods containing corn in the form of high fructose corn syrup include many soft drinks, jams, jellies, ice cream and ketchup. And corn is as tricky to detect in food as wheat, since it goes by many names including: dextrose, hydrolized protein, maltose, maltodextrin and modified food starch.
What to do? Read labels carefully is what conventional wisdom advises, since as of yet foods do not need to be labeled GMO-free. And remember that soy is another genetically-modified food featuring prominently in ingredients lists.
But if reading labels is time-consuming and frustrating, take it a step further and buy whole foods. Fruits, vegetables, dried beans, seeds. That way you know exactly what you get. Very few fresh fruits and vegetables are genetically modified. Exceptions include some zucchini, squash, and sweet corn. The only commercialized GM fruit is papaya from Hawaii. But the non-GMO Shopping Guide tells us that even if the fruit or vegetable is non-GMO, if it is packaged, frozen, or canned, there may be GM additives, so buy fresh as often as possible, and then take these delicious products home and cook them yourself.
Be with your food every step of the way, from market to meal (and if you have a green thumb, start with the seed), because the proteins, carbs, and other nutrients your food provides will be with you till the end. As they say, you are what you eat.