Main content starts here, tab to start navigating

Health Hack #20 - When Organic Matters Outside of Produce + An FYI on American Wheat

In last week’s article (link here) we dove into the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists, explaining how pesticide residues can affect certain produce more than others. A thick shell such as that found on an avocado can protect the inner pulp from pesticide intrusion, whereas a soft, edible exterior like one found on a strawberry can literally work as a pesticide sponge.

When it comes to organic, almost all of the hoopla surrounds produce: organic fruits and organic vegetables. But for most Americans, the bulk of our shopping carts are filled with other things: dairy, canned products, bagged products, etc. Nearly a decade ago organic non-produce was virtually unheard of, but now it’s becoming more and more ubiquitous. There are whole foods such as canned organic beans. And then there are plenty of processed foods as well, such as organic chips and even organic frozen pizza.

For real whole foods (that may be packaged or canned, like beans or nuts), the same wisdom applies to that espoused in our article on produce: if organic is feasible, it’s probably a wiser fit. When it isn't, referencing the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists can be of assistance (Dirty Dozen here, Clean 15 here). And when referencing isn’t available or foods simply aren’t named on any list, use the avocado logic. Does it really make sense to splurge for organic pistachios? They’re mostly covered by a thick protective shell, and the edible nut is anything but absorbent. Probably not an issue to buy conventional.

But for the more processed foods, the organic label may seem like a senseless upcharge. Why go organic when indulging in frozen (or even fresh) pizza, is there really a point? We already know that pizza isn’t particularly nutritious. It turns out that in many cases, it’s not senseless at all.

The flour that makes a traditional pizza is derived from wheat. The primary grain that occupies most cereals is wheat. The grain base for most pastas is wheat. The fluffing agent that is used in almost every packaged baked good is wheat. In most stretches of the grocery store, we’re encountering wheat in some form, on either side of us, pretty much always, whenever we’re in an aisle where things are packaged. It’s fairly easy to avoid when relegated to the produce section, which typically lives on an outskirt of the grocery store. But the inner aisles are a completely different story.

The Tale Of American Wheat

The bulk of modern American grown wheat has an interesting story, and it’s one that lends credence to the fervor behind the production of all different types of organic processed foods over the last decade or so. But before dropping any wheat knowledge, an important preface is a quick 101 on GMOs for some better context.

Genetically modified organisms officially hit the FDA-approved food scene in 1994, when the gene structure of a tomato species was tweaked in such a way that it extended shelf life. The goal of GMO farming isn’t evil, despite many in the health community vilifying its creation. Or at least it wasn’t born of ill intent. Produce farming can be tough, especially with large scale operations. Yields can suffer immensely based on Mother Nature’s decision to dump too much rain or too little. Insects can ravage a crop in the blink of an eye. GMOs seek to increase resilience and help protect against pest invasions via tweaking the gene sequence of a crop such that it builds a stronger tolerance for withstanding Mother Nature’s most wicked curve balls.

The key issue with GMO farming (in our opinion) is not with the mission statement of the practice itself, but with the unintended consequences it often delivers to food we later consume. Evolution is an unbelievably slow process. When you introduce a gene edit, you run the risk of creating new proteins that agitate our gut and wreak havoc on our microbiome. While the macronutrient makeup may not change (i.e. the amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrate inherent in the food), the chromosomal nuance changes in such a way that can potentially disagree with our digestive system. Our bodies evolved to eat and process certain foods certain ways, and when that process is tampered with, our bodies don’t easily adjust. It’s because of these concerns that we do not serve GMOs in our restaurants.

Shifting gears back over to wheat, it’s important to point out that wheat is NOT a GMO crop. Not even the American variety alluded to above. But our U.S. version does share a few key similarities, unfortunately negative ones.

Following the end of WW2, America was suddenly flooded with more mouths to feed than ever before. Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist, had an idea for how to help. “How can I increase crop yields?” Much like the GMO mission mentioned above, there isn’t much reason to believe that his plan was conceived of ill intent. While money can always be considered a bit of a questionable motivator, it’s important for Borlaug’s story to consider that money would seem to become a mere by-product of his success with changing the way we grow wheat. (It’s hard to make this same case nowadays for the global agro companies that manufacture GMO seed, where profitability seems to count more than ethics in some cases.)

Norman Borlaug founded an operation in Mexico devoted to increasing our wheat supply. After years of struggle, he landed upon a hybridized version of wheat called Dwarf Wheat. Through blending various strains, he created a product that was much more resilient. Traditional wheat stood much taller than Dwarf Wheat, which explains the name of the new strain. The issue that Borlaug detected was that traditional wheat would grow very tall but ultimately collapse upon its own top-heavy weight, leading to a reduced harvestability. Additionally, traditional wheat could easily become devastated by drought. Borlaug’s version corrected for both of these concerns. Now drought tolerant, Dwarf Wheat also became a much hardier crop overall. The stalks were stronger and much more capable of holding up heavy seed heads. But like with those GMOs, there were some unintended consequences that weren’t immediately apparent.

Through the process of hybridizing wheat strains (though not at the genetic sequencing level, hence the distinction of it not carrying a GMO label), Dwarf Wheat took on a new form of starch. From a blood glucose perspective, Dwarf Wheat more closely resembles table sugar than traditional wheat. In other words, this uber-starch causes our blood sugar to skyrocket. Additionally, the gluten inherent in the wheat became much more pronounced. But more on the gluten front in a bit...

The inherent hardiness of Dwarf Wheat turned out to have an unfortunate consequence. Glyphosate, best known as the herbicide Roundup, is the impetus behind many of the most novel innovations in the world of GMOs. If a crop can be engineered to withstand the application of glyphosate, then fields may be treated liberally, eradicating all weeds and freeing as much soil space as possible to guarantee maximum yields. Dwarf Wheat became so hardy over the years that its seed heads are now able to withstand Roundup applications just prior to harvest. No hyperbole here. Non-organic Dwarf Wheat crops are often sprayed with Roundup to defoliate the leaves of the plants on the verge of harvest, making harvesting the seeds and stalks all that much easier. The most popular wheat-based cereals that we’ve all lived with for decades and decades are now often the most egregiously pesticide-laden foods we encounter. So sad.

What To Do With This Intel

As a blanket recommendation, if a wheat product is being purchased, go out of your way to make it organic. That said, organic pizza is a wise idea after all. But be warned that like with everything else, organic distinctions most often come at a premium.

If you can avoid wheat altogether, then obviously you’re very safe. But it’s important to grasp that shopping for organic wheat does not imply avoiding the Dwarf Wheat strain, with all of its inherent inflammatory properties. It simply means that you’re much more likely not to encounter Roundup contamination. You’re still up against the ultra high glycemic starch and the more potent gluten, however.

Gluten, a known digestive agitant that is inherent in wheat-based grains, receives a ton of play on labels that advertise where it’s not found. There is a gluten free option for virtually everything, should you seek it out. Mind you - shifting to gluten free products does not imply going organic, but it at least rules out the likelihood of encountering the American wheat strains that comprise the most egregious offenders in the realm of pesticide laden foods. Reducing your overall consumption of wheat should entail a reduction in your exposure to excessive glyphosate. We founded Real Food Eatery as a 100% gluten free restaurant, and we maintain this distinction to this day, for what we believe to be a very good reason.

Revert your diet more towards real and fresh foods that are found on the perimeter of the grocery store, as opposed to those found within the aisles of the store. In addition to the wheat/pesticide concerns, many processed foods often contain questionable preservatives. Apologies if this notion seems heavy-handed throughout these weekly publications, but the fact remains: we’re all better off when we Eat Real Food.

Scrutinize labels very closely. As noted earlier, wheat is often lurking, and if it’s found in an American made product and it’s not certified organic, then there’s that double whammy at play.

Interesting Tidbit To Close With

Many Americans traveling throughout Europe notice something distinct about the wheat products they consume there, whether it be pizza, pasta, or plain old bread. Not only do they taste differently, but they seem to go down much more easily. This is not a mirage. European wheat practices are far more ancient than American ones, and the hybridized Dwarf variety assumes a practically non-existent share of the overall wheat production. Additionally, Europe has put their foot down and stood firmly on their stance towards glyphosate. Austria has banned the product altogether, while Italy, France, and other European countries have limited much of its former use and are working towards outlawing it altogether. Hopefully someday America will follow suit...