In February of this year The New York Times exposed what most of us food shoppers already suspect. Gluten free foods have flooded the marketplace with sales approaching $10.5 billion a year in 2013, and projected to reach 15 billion a year by 2015. A Mayo clinic survey estimates that up to 1.8 million Americans claim to have celiac disease. These individuals truly need to avoid all sources of gluten. Another 18 million Americans consider themselves “gluten sensitive”, and avoid gluten containing foods at varying levels of vigilance. Some gluten avoiders choose a “paleo” type diet, eating mostly protein and produce. Marketing researchers tally an increasing number of consumers voluntarily avoiding gluten at the supermarket for a variety of reasons, even without really knowing what gluten is. What is up?
In May of 2013, I puzzled over my own bizarre reaction to eating bread and other gluten containing foods. By September I wondered about others ways gluten may be increasing in the food supply and addressed the increasing content of protein in wheat. By February of this year, I took a hard look at the increasing incidence of food allergies and sensitivities. I blogged about a rash of changes in the food supply that could be playing a role, including the increasing use of pesticides and other endocrine disruptors. Today glyphosate, along with other inert ingredients in Monsanto’s Roundup, garners more and more attention.
Currently glyphosate ranks as the number one herbicide used in the US, primarily due to the advent of genetically modified seed engineered to be “Roundup resistant”" (RR). In a 2012 publication Charles Benbrook of Washington State University addresses the impact of genetically engineered (GE) crops on pesticide use in the United States. As of 2011 RR seeds were planted in an estimated 96% of the cropland growing soybeans, 72% of corn, and 96% of cotton.
The promise of glyphosate resistant crops was to decrease dependence on pesticides, and yet use continues to escalate. Weeds grow increasingly resistant and conventional farmers now apply more pesticide more often in attempt to suppress the problem for all crops. In addition, before 2006 glyphosate could not be sprayed directed onto actively growing crops from non GE seeds. GE wheat is not available commercially in the US, so residues in foods made with wheat were rare. That is not true today.
In a fairly controversial paper, Stephanie Seneff and colleague Anthony Samsel assert, “The Western diet is a delivery system for toxic chemicals used in industrial agriculture…Pesticide residues like glyphosate contaminate the entire diet.” Sometime around 2006 farmers markedly expanded the use glyphosate as a harvest aid for wheat and barley in the US. The practice in the UK dates back to 1980. Farmers spray glyphosate onto crops close to harvest in order to speed up the drying process. Proponents argue that the practice reduces risk of fungus and shortens time to harvest. In the UK, the authors of the information sheet point out that glyphosate residues are below targets. Yet the same sheet fails to point out that both the European Union and UK have been repeatedly asked to raise the maximal glyphosate levels allowed. In his paper, Charles Benbrook notes that the highest levels of glyphosate is found in grain and sugar crops.
Some scientists link pesticides to environmental impact and greater risk to public health. In Seneff’s paper, she fingers conditions that range from leaky gut and celiac disase to problems with mineral transport and deficiencies, as well as interference with the synthesis of tryptophan and tyrosine. These two amino acids function as precursors for serotonin and dopamine respectively, and influence conditions ranging from appetite regulation to mental health. The question remains, “Has spraying glyphosate just before harvest increased residues in food past a tipping point?”
Seneff and Samsel report that the US represents 25% of the total world market of herbicide usage, with glyphosate the most utilized herbicide since 2001. USDA’s most recent usage data shows a doubling of use of the herbicide from 2001 to 2007. More current usage data remains unavailable, reportedly due to budget cuts. So what does that mean for us? I’m not sure, but there is plenty of research to be done.
An intriguing graph in another paper by Seneff and Samsel shows parallel increases in gluten intolerance and glyphosate usage suggesting correlation. Their proposals generate considerable disdain from other scientists. This is familiar territory. I remember the same dismissive tone when decades ago I suggested the outrageous notion that insulin resistance caused weight gain, not just the other way around. I’ve learned to stay open minded.
Only additional research will tell us if there are legs to the numerous ways Seneff and Samsel propose glyphosate (and more critically Roundup) may be impacting our health and the environment. At this juncture correlation cannot prove causation. The assertions made in these two papers should sound a clarion call to researchers in a wide range of disciplines. While many scientists discredit Seneff and Samsel’s paper, there is no doubt that gastrointestinal distress, autism, mental health and other conditions theoretically linked to glyphosate are on the rise. People are doing what they can to feel better.
I personally have made an extra effort to eat only organic grains along with grass fed animal products and mostly organic produce for a variety of reasons. Interestingly I only experience gastric pain, tightness in my esophagus, or noxious burping when I eat non-organic grain products.
In the end it probably doesn’t matter what some scientist insists. I will continue to eat in a way that improves or maintains my quality of life. For the many consumers choosing to eat less gluten–and even for the countless eaters avoiding grains for any number of reasons–we are already conducting our own experiment. Maybe we should start collecting the data.