I was listening to a call-in show on the radio this week and a listener from Colorado bragged about buying flour that was free of growth hormone and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). At first I laughed, and then I worried. Scientific ignorance is killing us. It allows climate change denialists to stop us from saving our homes. It allows quacks and drug companies to sell fake cures. And it blinds us to the real problems in food safety.
So how can we know what the real dangers in food are? Is it better to buy organic or GMO-free or locally sourced foods? The answer is actually pretty simple, much simpler than all the organic marketing and the GMO fights.
First is economics. In 2015, nearly 13% of U.S. households experienced food insecurity (the current term for “hunger”). Many more are forced to rely on poor-quality foods that lead to obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Many poor Americans live in “food deserts.” They may want to purchase healthy foods, but there aren't any grocery stores near enough, and they are forced to buy fast foods or unhealthy prepackaged foods. So, being able to choose healthy foods is itself a privilege.
The 87% of us who aren't going hungry are subjected to a flood of bad information about what is and what isn't healthy. Stores stock foods that are “GMO-free,” “hormone-free,” and “gluten-free,” but the only thing most of these foods share is a hefty price tag.
A good starting point here is author Michael Pollan's one line eating plan: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” By “food,” he means things that look like they came from the ground, or a ranch, or any place other than a factory. This makes things pretty simple.
If you're worried about “hormones” in your meat, don't. Just eat less meat. If you eat a few servings of meat every week, you'll never get more than a few molecules of hormones in your food, if that. And the hormone-free, GMO-free flour that the Colorado baker was excited about? Wheat is a plant: you can't feed it growth hormones. And none of the flour available to consumers is ground from GMO grains.
Health food hype is based purely on marketing and not on science. Much has been made of growth hormone in meat, and much of it is flat out wrong. If your chicken is advertised as “hormone-free,” make sure you aren't paying a higher price, because no poultry in the U.S. is given hormones.
Gluten-free is very popular right now, but even if you are one of the 1% of Americans with celiac disease, marketers are fooling you. Whole Foods sells “gluten-free” baby shampoo. First, please don't eat baby shampoo. Second, gluten is a protein found in wheat. Meats, cheeses, and personal care products don't normally have wheat in them.
But there are real risks in food, risks that require some science to understand and prevent. In the U.S., food-borne illness is a big threat, with 48 million Americans getting sick each year. Much of this is due to poor food handling starting in the fields and farms and going all the way to the final person to touch the food before it goes into your mouth. We do a terrible job in this country preventing infections we acquire from the meats and produce we eat. Preventing these requires good policies and good regulation. (Antibiotics in agriculture is a separate issue. Farmers use it to increase yield in meat, and the antibiotics get into our food chain, not hurting us directly, but decreasing our ability to use antibiotics to help humans.)
While we wait (and wait, and wait) for better food safety legislation and enforcement, there's a lot you can do at home to prevent infections. The CDC's guide to safe food handling is a good place to start. And scientific literacy, as always, is so important. Raw milk (milk that isn't pasteurized) has been a growing fad for a number of years. With that fad has come a quadrupling of the number of outbreaks due to raw milk. An easy way to prevent infections is to stick to dairy that's treated and handled properly, and to avoid food fads.
Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Follow basic food handling safety guidelines. And learn to separate fact from fiction in food safety.
Peter A. Lipson, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. After graduating from Rush Medical College in Chicago, he completed his internal medicine residency at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. This post first appeared at his blog at Forbes. His blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers "musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture." His writing focuses on the difference between science-based medicine and "everything else," but also speaks to the day-to-day practice of medicine, fatherhood, and whatever else migrates from his head to his keyboard.