Organic is primarily a labeling term that is used on a wide variety of foods that have been produced through methods and practices approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its National Organics Program (NOP). Organic is also one of the single best steps you can take to safeguard the quality of your food. In many cases, organic is also good step for the environment.
Many people think about "organic" as meaning "earth friendly." Even though this meaning often holds true, it doesn't always. Organic regulations focus on farming practices and food production steps that can be monitored and controlled to decrease risk of food contamination and improve food quality. But for the most part, organic regulations simply do not try to address more complicated issues involving the earth and sustainability.
Here is one simple example of the difference between the focus of organic regulations and a focus on sustainability. In the U.S., we currently plant about 92 million acres of corn, 78 million acres of soybeans, and 57 million acres of wheat. Ecologists view these 227 million acres and the way they are planted as non-sustainable. Many factors combine to make our current planting of corn and soybeans and wheat non-sustainable. Included are factors like natural water cycles and natural mineral cycles in North America and their inability to accommodate the 227 million acres of these three crops as currently cultivated. The USDA's organics program does not address or evaluate the sustainability of these crop acres. The program limits its focus to the farming steps that would be needed in order for all 227 million acres of corn and soybeans and wheat to be certified as organic. For example, USDA organic guidelines would prohibit use of genetic engineering, fertilization with sewage sludge, and irradiation on any of these acres. Such changes would most likely improve the quality of the crops and the quality of the land. But the practice of planting 227 million acres with these three crops would still be non-sustainable, and this non-sustainability would not matter from the USDA's perspective. Provided that USDA organic requirements were met, these crops would be labeled organic regardless of their sustainability. The bottom line here is simple: organic food production is better for the environment and better for our health than conventional food production methods, but important earth-related questions like sustainability are not typically addressed in organic regulations and might not be furthered by adoption of organic standards.
Of special importance in organics are the "big three." Genetic engineering, irradiation, and sewage sludge are sometimes referred to as "the big three" by commentators on the National Organics Program, since they are practices that can have an especially problematic impact on health and the environment. The "big three" have always been - and are still - prohibited by organic regulations. Along with prohibition of these three practices, however, a wide variety of other practices are prohibited in production of organic food. For example, most synthetic chemicals (including most synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers) are prohibited by organic regulations. All off these prohibitions in organic food production are important. They help to safeguard the quality of our food and to reduce our health risk from food contaminants.
George Mateljan Foundation
For years, I thought I was doing my body good by eating whole wheat breads, pastas, and grains. I struggled with a variety of health issues during my adolescence and early adulthood, but I thought, doggedly, that if I just kept eating my whole grains and vegetables, all problems would eventually be resolved. So it came as no small shock that the very grains I was consuming for their much-touted “health properties” might actually have been making me sick.
The wheat on the market today is a new breed, different from grains consumed by Americans in the early decades of the 20th century. And more and more research suggests these new strains might not be as healthy as they’re cracked up to be, leading to exponential increases in gluten sensitivities among other potential human health issues.
Wait, Wheat? — The Need-to-KnowModern wheat differs from its origins as the result of intense cross-breeding programs, which have turned the crop into something neither physically nor genetically like its old self. While the classic plants grew over four feet tall, modern wheat (grown in 99 percent of the world’s wheat fields) is now derisively dubbed “dwarf wheat,” standing just two feet in height with an abnormally large seed head balanced atop its stocky stem. These dramatic physical changes are paralleled by genetic shifts, the result of crossing wheat with non-wheat grasses and inducing genetic mutations through irradiation and exposure to toxins. (It should be noted that these processes are not the same as genetic engineering.)
The Role of GlutenThe compositional changes of wheat have very real impacts for the humans who consume it. Crossbreeding programs have changed the structure of wheat’s gluten proteins, providing a possible explanation for why the prevalence of celiac disease and gluten intolerance has increased dramatically in the United States over the last 50 years . Today, approximately one in every 133 Americans has celiac disease.
An increase in celiac diagnoses can be partly attributed to heightened awareness of the disease (it’s also possible this incidence rate is exaggerated, as the phenomenon isn’t yet observed in other parts of the “developed” world). But as occurrences of celiac disease have escalated, so too has the prevalence of gluten sensitivity — which researchers now define as a separate clinical entity, similar to (and perhaps even more widespread than) celiac . Gluten (found in most wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and, through contamination, various other products) has been linked with varying degrees of certainty to nutritional deficiencies, skin problems, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, autism, heart disease, cancer, and mood and digestive disorders in people with sensitivities . As of now, there’s a clear association between gluten and these health issues — but researchers can’t yet say with certainty that gluten is the direct cause.
Other SuspectsWhen it comes to modern wheat, gluten is quickly becoming the most famous “protein of interest.” But wheat’s composition has changed in other ways that are raising eyebrows.
Some critics of modern wheat cite health risks associated with its high levels of the starch Amylopectin A, which has been linked to the development of insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes, heart disease, and weight gain) in rats . However, studies on the starch are few and far between, and those that do exist are typically at least a decade old.
Also under suspicion are modern wheat’s polypeptides, chains of amino acids that make up the protein gliadin in the plants. Wheat critics accuse these polypeptides (also called “exorphins”) of acting like endorphins in the body, making people feel “high” after eating wheat-laden carbs — and prompting them to crave more. However, there’s no definitive proof of this direct link between gliadin and addictive behavior. As with Amylopectin A, few contemporary studies address the question of whether or how much polypeptides might affect people’s health. In short, more research is needed to confirm whether or not modern wheat’s polypeptides pose a risk to human health.
Whither Wheat? — The TakeawayThe verdict is still out on whether modern wheat’s high starch content and exorphins are of serious concern for the average wheat consumer. What is certain is that modern wheat has changed distinctly from its historical composition, and the modified gluten protein might be a culprit in the striking rise in both celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.
For my own part, I’ve been gluten-free for going on ten months. Some, but not all, of my health issues have begun to resolve — enough so that I’m committed to remaining gluten-free. The elimination of gluten from a person’s diet is a matter of individual choice and medical needs. But the increased prevalence of gluten sensitivities is a strong call for more research into the new world of wheat.
This article was read and approved by Greatist Experts Dr. Douglas Kalman and Dr. John Mandrola.