We’d been in the State Welfare office for several hours. The conversation turned to gluten-free foods. Having gone through several reversals of what is “healthy”, I opined that people had eaten wheat for some thousands of years without problems in the general population .She replied that it was probably due to “GMO’s, where they’d used ‘chemicals’” on the wheat. I tried to explain that everything was made of chemicals, which were made of elements. No, she said, elements are natural, and there are four of them, but she couldn’t name two of them.....
It was time, I thought, to give her The Talk. The Facts of Life. Not the fun parts. But what life really, really is.
This is not just me doing a little cultural evangelism, this is (potentially) survival knowledge for you as a public health professional.
First, we’ll start with the simplest part of what I said, about the elements, and then I’ll move onward.
Yes, there are four classical elements, air, water, fire and earth. These are important in literature, theology, astrology, and magic. So far, we actually agree. These correspond to three states of matter, plus energy. If we were to talk about alchemy, we’d be talking about sulfur, salt, and mercury as well, as examples of the way that metals work. The same traditional medicine that uses herbs and “natural” cures doesn’t distinguish between, say mugwort, and mercury, as being “natural”, since both can be found in nature. Indeed mercury was once used widely in treatments for depression and STDs, in the form of something called the “Blue Pill”, despite it being extremely poisonous. In the dawn of scientific medicine, the men who favored the traditional methods were called “quacksalvers” (for the ordinary name for mercury), or “quacks”. I was well aware of this when we quarreled about gluten.
But that’s not what’s usually spoken of when people talk about elements today. Elements are types of atoms, and there are more than a hundred of them, ranging from Hydrogen to Oganesson. Ninety-two of them are “natural” elements, that is, found on Planet Earth, the rest of them are rare radioactive elements that can only be found in labs or out in the stars somewhere. Elements form bonds that make compounds, various compounds make mixtures and dispersions, and so on. Water is a compound of a highly flammable gas with a corrosive one. Salt is what you get when you mix one poisonous chemical (a gas), with another poisonous chemical (flammable sodium). Nitrogen, a key component of non-organic fertilizer, is also dangerous if that’s all you have to breathe, but also is necessary for plant life, fun to cook with, and a component of protein. We also have organic chemistry, and this is where things start getting muddy.
A huge number of chemical compounds are made up of mostly hydrogen, and carbon, and called “organic compounds". Chemicals found in living matter are “organic”, but so are those that are derived from fermented or fossilized life, such as oil and coal. When you sweat or pee, most of what you’re doing is offloading extra urea, if you put a polyurethane varnish on a table, you’re also using urea, made in a lab. Soaps, dyes, plastics, preservatives…all things people shun are also “organic chemicals” as are proteins, RNA, lecthicin, all the amino acids and vitamins, and DNA. There’s a protein in all your muscles that takes up a whole book to write out in chemical terms, called “titin” for short. The science that deals with the chemistry of living things is biochemistry, and things get REALLY weird from now on.
It used to be that we spoke about famines in India as a regular occurrence. No more. The Green Revolution came through, and now it exports grain, triticale, a tasty rye-wheat cross (I’ve eaten it) that grows almost anywhere instead of traditional grains, fertilized by nitrogen taken from the air, instead of the traditional way, by the Sacred Cow. Farmers that once starved every few years, now have grandchildren who aspire to careers in computer science, music, and yes, bioengineering.
You thought that grafting was OK, and natural. (At which point, in her reading, she said, “So, this isn’t just copied from a book? You wrote this.”I said, “I said I ate triticale, is this from a book?”) One of the most significant developments in human evolution is the development of wheat from its species version, emmer. Mary Shelley spoke of Frankenstein as stealing fire from the Gods, as Prometheus did, with the same connotations of ambivalence and reflections of the Atomic Bomb. (The fire can heat and light, but also burn and kill.) What I’m saying here is that we’ve had that torch for roughly ten thousand years. Through our mastery of artificial selection, we’ve made wolves into the many kinds of doggies we cherish, corn from four kernels on a stem to the lush, star-linked deliciousness we put cheese and lime and chiles on (as well as the lime and the pepper). The same is true for silkworms, cows, and horses, who simply cannot live without us, and avocados, cotton, and many, many other plant species as well. But artificial selection is notoriously random: any breed of dog or cat can develop grotesque deformities through incautious breeding. One wonders, why we don’t talk daily about the cruelty of breeding Franken-kittens with noses too short to support viable tearducts and Frankenpuppies that would kill their mothers if they were not born by Caesarian section, but dote on how "cute” Persians and French Bulldogs are, or decry the fact that dandelions are an invasive foreign species.(They are.)
One of the goals of bioengineering is to take the guesswork out of the process of artificial selection. By isolating genes with the qualities you want and selectively splicing them into the chromosomes of another bit of flora and/or fauna, you can create such useful things as rice with a high Vitamin A content, or crops that are easier to tend, as well as fun stuff like bunnies that glow under UV and harmless bacteria that fart perfume. Bioengineers can actually make life in a test tube, by splicing bits and pieces that aren’t viable by themselves but, when put together, divide and pumm around like any natural microbe. (And you can, too, for $200 in your own kitchen or workshop! There are kits.) Instead of being, as detractors love to point out, scientists randomly smashing life forms together, they’re selectively editing the Book of Life, just as we always had, but more carefully. Think of the difference between a torch and a laser.
Yes, I’m a geek. I’m happy to own up to a reality that includes the possibility of a dead first century peasant girl hearing me talking to her statue in church, as well as the Big Bang. I can pretend that a small pillow with eyes on it is a small, sapient pet and make soap operas out of the behavior of birds at my feeder. And I’m happy that you’ve got your own little pet universe, too.
But I’m serious that there is a reality you should uphold, and not just choose, as a professional in public health, helping the poorest of the poor. Some people don’t vaccinate their children, because they heard some celebrity doesn’t do it, or squander money buying useless supplements (like Alex Jones’s various male enhancement nostrums) or nonsensical items (Gwenyth Paltrow's Energy Stickers), because they want to be tough or pretty. If you have enough money, you can subscribe to Sakara, from which for a whopping $600-800 dollars a week you can buy meal kits chock-full of “clean food”, or pay a specialist to deal with the lingering problems your kid has from when they caught one of those “childhood” diseases. At least they aren’t autistic! But we don’t have this luxury.
Gluten intolerance is a fact. I’m aware of this. But for 96% of the population, avoiding gluten is nothing more than yet another fad diet. People who are gluten intolerant have a very specific set of symptoms that show up in infancy, and can be confirmed by a test.Most people who claim to have a “wheat allergy” these days read about it in a magazine or saw someone attractive on a talkshow and figured hey, it might help me lose weight. (For people with true celiac, weight loss is what you want to avoid.) But it’s also hard to get enough Vitamin B without gluten, which is the protein part of grains…and it’s expensive to buy only gluten-free products. Cheap, nourishing food does have some advantages, you know, especially when you’re poor.
Organic food is simply, food that doesn’t have fertilizer derived from clean nitrospheric nitrogen, but from bacteria-rich “natural” sources, most of which include E. coli and other nasties. It’s expensive because you have to pay a lot of Trump's enemies to weed everything and hand-pick all the bugs off.
Which brings up my last point: if cheap food makes steady money for the food industry, fad diets are a bonanza. Far from being the purview of lone voices crying truth to power, unmasking the lies of giant conglomerates, diet fads mean quick profits for them. If you can claim your cookies, or crackers, or cereal, or candy, or other empty calories are “cholesterol-free” or “heart-smart”, while adding several tablespoons of corn syrup into a serving, you can sound like a responsible company, cut out expensive oils and often, proteins, and often be able to charge just a little extra. Sugar a problem? Tout aspartame-laced cupcakes, or if that’s now the culprit, some exotic non-cane source of sweetness, which you can mix in with your other carbs. Even if all you can claim is that you haven’t changed your recipe since the late 1940’s, stick a picture of a farm on it, and a pinky-swear that there’s no “chemicals” in it, and people will scarf up your junk food with abandon. Meanwhile, there’s always a counter-fad: chocolate, bacon, BBQ, grilling…Feel nervous? Eat “comfort foods”. Want to feel pretty and sexy? Eat chocolate, vegetarian, vegan. Want to feel manly,”authentic”, adventurous? Eat some meat grilled over a fire, or slow-cooked by a pit master. Want to feel connected to the People? Eat Soul food, Mexican, Thai, Indian, pho, gyro...
I understand that you would like to Make A Difference, or else you wouldn’t be here with me. And being healthy is certainly a priority. Time was, the USDA (and the New York City Health Dept.) had a nice low carb approach, that kept just about everyone happy, and, by looking at photos taken at the time, fairly slim. In the early Eighties, this got ditched in favor of a high-carb, low fat approach that emphasized fish and pasta and downplayed meat, much to the delight of the Baby Boomers, who happily felt justified in eating huge amounts of sugar, salt, and “healthy” oils as well as dairy.....which led to the mess we’re in now. There’s just no easy way out! But turning your back on technology doesn’t work at all. Unless you want to take The Blue Pill......