The two faces of GMOs

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photo by Newtown graffiti
photo by Newtown graffiti

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When I’m wearing one of my other hats, as a nutrition educator for a local natural-foods store, I have dealt with several customers who are horrified about GMO foods, or genetically modified organisms (a.k.a. genetic engineering, or GE). That’s when scientists in a lab splice plant and animal cells into the DNA of an unrelated organism to create something brand-new. Usually depending on your perspective, it’s done for reasons ranging from pure profit to better nutrition.

On May 25 in New Paltz close to 400 people protested the practice, which has been around since 1996. They called out for labeling so consumers could make more informed choices about what they consume.

Marchers dressed as bees and ears of corn and carried signs with messages like “Free the Seed” and “F*** Monsanto.” The march was part of a much larger worldwide protest that day that involved some two million people, which was taking place in 52 countries and more that 436 cities.

As a culture we love to fall in love with or demonize food products. We like chia seeds and hate high-fructose corn syrup. But the fear of GMOs seems to go beyond the good-or-bad duality. It seems more fundamental than that.

Proponents — from large corporations to the federal government — claim that they can improve the nutrition, yield and disease resistance of our foods by genetically engineering them, saving the world from malnutrition. They declare that they can make foods with more iron to treat anemia, that they can increase the vitamin A content of rice and improve health that way, especially in developing nations. They say they can increase the milk production of cattle by putting the right genes in them. They claim their products are robust, healthy, and more nutritious than non-GMO crops.

It goes further. They profess to be able to protect crops from failing due to pests or harsh conditions, such as overly saline soil or drought-prone areas. They also claim to not only benefit our health but the environment as well. If crops are bred to use less space, they reason, less land is broken up. They claim they can reduce global warming by making GMO grass that makes cattle less gassy.

The claims of benefits go beyond even that: GMO crops can need little to no pesticide because it has been genetically spliced into them. The makers assert they can reduce waste by creating products with extended shelf lives. They even plan projects like the creation of useful biofuels from specially bred organic matter. They boast about the creation of wonderful new vaccines and medicines.

Going gluten-free

[wide]gluten-free[/wide]That mild-mannered pile of flour on your pasta-making board could be evil. It probably contains the protein known as gluten, the “glue” that gives doughs their texture and elasticity and helps them rise to fluffiness. But a glue can be a danger. Although only 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, with its severe physical reaction to gluten, nearly a third of us — 29 percent — claim to be avoiding or planning to start cutting down on gluten, according to the NDP Group, a market-research company.

Reasons range from that celiac-disease diagnosis to a wheat allergy to wheat intolerance to just believing that wheat is so unhealthy for you that you feel better without it.

But giving it up is somewhat more complicated than leaving the bun off your burger, as gluten can lurk in many unexpected places. Plus, the prospect of a newly diagnosed intolerance of gluten, with no pizza, pasta, bread or cake ever again, is fairly earth-shaking. The majority of breads contain the wheat, rye and barley that contains gluten. So does beer, cereal and a lot of processed foods. Avoiding it is not an easy task, but a serious and necessary one for the person with celiac disease.

Celiac disease is a genetic disorder of malabsorption, an abnormal immune-response reaction to gluten that inflames and damages the small intestine. Symptoms common in children include vomiting, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea and constipation. Adults may have no symptoms at all, or feel fatigue, anxiety, depression, a blistering skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis, oral canker sores, missed periods, infertility, arthritis, bone or joint pain or seizures. It can lead to complications like intestinal cancer, liver disease, osteoporosis, anemia and malnutrition.

The symptoms of celiac disease can be confused with the manifestations of several other diseases. It can also remain dormant until an episode of stress, illness, pregnancy or childbirth triggers it.

Wheat allergy, one of the most common allergies of children and often outgrown, comes from an antibody to the proteins in wheat. Some of the symptoms include swelling of the face, coughing, wheezing, nasal congestion, difficulty breathing, anaphylaxis, itchy watery eyes and skin rashes such as hives.

Is a vegetarian lifestyle safe for teens?

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Photo by WordRidden
Photo by WordRidden

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Vegetarians have been around for a long time, but in recent years there’s been a trend among younger people, whose bodies are still growing and developing, to give up meat and often other animal products as well. My 18-year-old nephew has always been a vegetarian because he just doesn’t like meat. His 16-year-old sister became one a couple of years ago, and just announced she is now vegan. My eleven-year-old daughter has been a pescatarian for several months, eschewing all meat and poultry and eating only fish.

The idealism and enthusiasm of the adolescent age group can make them embrace the lifestyle fully, and stick with it. There are many reasons kids give up meat; their commitment goes beyond just wanting to follow the herd, so to speak, although celebrity vegetarians admittedly have a share in influencing the young. Chelsea and Bill Clinton, Janet Jackson, Prince, Paul McCartney, Daryl Hannah and Albert Einstein are or were vegetarians.

But the most common reason kids give for not eating meat is animal rights. They don’t want to consume living beings, or they don’t approve of the inhumane way animals are often raised before slaughter. In this “green” day and age, many kids, knowing that meat production uses more natural resources than does plant growing, requiring more water and fossil fuels and affecting the water, soil, air and rainforest, want to be kinder to the planet.

Some kids were raised vegetarian by their parents and choose to stay that way. Others are vegetarian due to religious beliefs, either their family’s or their own. Many kids, wanting to look slim and stylish, know a vegetarian diet is usually lower in fat than a carnivorous one. Some are knowledgeable about the health benefits, like lower incidence of major health problems like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Still others, like my nephew, just don’t like meat or choose the diet to exercise their autonomy and independence, in some cases even to camouflage unhealthy binging or anorexic behavior.

Although in modern times it’s somewhat easier for a vegetarian of any age to find what he or she needs in the common supermarket, if not in the average school cafeteria, some teens have a tough time getting the support they need from family and friends. Meat-eater classmates may taunt and tease the vegetarian teen for being different. Parental reactions run the gamut from support and help in the form of tasty home-cooked veggie meals to histrionics or stern lecturing about how unhealthy their choice is, and how many essential nutrients they are missing out on.

But parents can’t force or cajole their kids into eating meat if they don’t want to. I think that acceptance and assistance in the form of gentle guidance is the better approach. Because it’s easier for kids to live on junk food and pizza, it takes effort on their part to get what they need to be healthy.

Out with the gluten

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Lauren Arcomano and Janet Villani Garratt. (Photo by Dion Ogust)
Lauren Arcomano and Janet Villani Garratt. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

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When I was first out there eating gluten-free, I found a lot of companies were just swapping white-rice flour for wheat flour,” said Lauren Arcomano, who altered her diet in an effort to address symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. “I wanted to keep baking with whole grains but without gluten.”

This yen for healthful baked goods led Arcomano and her friend Janet Villani Garratt to start Bearsville Bakers, which supplies gluten-free brownies, biscotti, scones, cookies, coffee cake, and other goodies to local farmstands and health-food stores. The expanding year-old business is meeting the needs of people who find a gluten-free diet helpful in treating food allergies, wheat sensitivity and celiac disease. Arcomano said her rheumatoid arthritis symptoms are much improved by the diet.

Garratt, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York, waxed enthusiastic about the creative process of adapting recipes to meet the chemistry of gluten-free baking. “I’ll look at a recipe and think, Okay, what might work here? What can I substitute? It usually takes two tries — occasionally three or four.”

Gluten is a binding material that maintains the texture of wheat-based products, and it’s tricky to find a substitute that has the same “gluey” properties. White-rice flour works, but its nutritional value is low, while brown-rice flour has a gritty quality.

Another option is certified gluten-free whole oats. “Oats don’t have gluten, but a lot of people can’t eat them because of cross-contamination from growing in fields where wheat was grown,” explained Arcomano. “They are often processed in facilities that also process wheat.” Arcomano and Garratt grind their oats in-house to avoid contamination.

They sometimes use more expensive ingredients such as hazelnut and almond meals, ground millet, or flaxseed. Egg makes a good binder, but they have to avoid it in their vegan products, which many customers request.

Brownies are a little easier. “Cocoa has a non-wheat starch, so chocolate has a binding property,” Garratt noted.

Some of their products contain white sugar, which is cheaper than sweeteners such as agave, xylitol or stevia, which they buy for their sugar-free creations. Other vegan treats are made with vegan white sugar.

Women’s Health Expo this Saturday

[wide]Expo[/wide]When and where, in one place, can you try reiki, have a one-on-one chat with a cardiologist, learn how a Biggest Loser did it, get a massage, learn P90X, how to make healthy shakes or how to launch your own personal brain makeover? That’s only the tip of the iceberg at an event this Saturday aimed at dozens of approaches to amping up health for women and their families.

Since 2000, the annual Women’s Health & Fitness Expo has been an entertaining, educational and multi-faceted event in the area. This year it’s on Saturday, May 4 from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Miller Middle School in Lake Katrine. The theme is “Managing Stress for a Better Life.”

Seminars, workshops, health screenings, fitness and cooking demos, and a lot more events are scheduled. As every year, there will be ample opportunities for attendees to interface with health and wellness specialists and providers from physicians to acupuncturists and many others. Many experts will be on hand with a variety of approaches to stress.

“Stress comes in all shapes and sizes, every day of our lives,” says Jeffrey L. Brown, a Harvard psychologist who will be presenting at the event. Dr. Brown is the author of The Competitive Edge (Tyndale, 2007), The Winner’s Brain (DaCapo, 2011), and Say Goodbye to Stress (Chicken Soup for the Soul, 2012). “Your brain is the single most effective tool you have to combat stress,” Brown said. “At the expo, attendees are going to learn about how to use their brains to beat stress and be more successful in their daily lives, no matter what role they play in the world. There’s nothing better than having new strategies for dealing with stress and the confidence to put them into action.” Brown’s talk will include a discussion of “how you can be using your opportunity radar to find paths to success that may ordinarily be bypassed by those around you.”

Another presenter is Harvard neurologist, brain health expert and author Marie Pasinski, who will be showing the audience how to reduce stress and launch a personal brain makeover. “By making over your mind, you’ll discover the true power and beauty of your brain,” she says. “I invite you to look, feel and achieve your personal best by maximizing your brain’s remarkable potential.” She promises the audience fun, creative ways to tap into the brain’s remarkable ability to redesign itself, at any age. Dr. Pasinski is the author of Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You (Voice, 2010) and Boost Your Brain Power (Chicken Soup for the Soul, 2012).

Three other seminars by medical-doctor presenters include Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins with “Hormonal Balance, Stress Management and Epigenetics,” Joseph Shrand with “Outsmarting Anger,” and Jennifer Ashton with “The New Frontier in Women’s Health.” Hannah Curlee from Biggest Loser will talk about her own 120-pound weight loss on “Journey to Health and Happiness!”

Workshop topics include organization, healthy kids, celiac disease/gluten-free eating, natural menopause solutions, financial strategies, diabetes, essential oils and soul power/healing with Elaine Ward. With more than 150 exhibits and 20 free health screenings from bone density to diabetes, the schedule of activities is non-stop. A healthy-food court will provide sustenance.