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Dispatches : Nutrition

Your Food Is Poisoning You

There’s a scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the Air Force subjects Richard Dreyfus and his fellow Third Encounterers to the media. The press conference is actually going pretty well, the media seem to be on the verge of believing these people—until one of them, a bearded old hermit type (Roberts Blossom) launches into a speech about how he once saw Bigfoot. Credibility: shot.

Such is the case, too, with people who’ve been trying to link celiac disease (and other ills) with the use of the herbicide glyphosate. Despite having long been treated like Bigfoot believers by their opponents, their research is now gaining widespread attention. More importantly, there's a growing sense that the science has reached a tipping point: Glyphosate cannot be recognized as harmless.

“I'm always suspicious of these consensuses on [the safety of] agriculture chemicals—they almost always fall apart over time, and that may be happening with glyphosate,” says author and food activist Michael Pollan.

Introduced by Monsanto in the early 1970s under the trade name Roundup (and used primarily back then as a weed killer), glyphosate is now used throughout the world on wheat and soy crops and since 2007 it has been the most widely used herbicide in the U.S.—and the growing target of research linking it to a variety of illnesses.

“Since Monsanto first introduced Roundup into crops in 1974, there’s been a rise in autism and other diseases,” says Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and co-author, with Anthony Samsel, a retired environmental scientist, of the recent review claiming that Roundup leads to celiac disease . “I’m certain at this point that glyphosate is the most important factor in an alarming number of epidemic diseases.” Diseases ranging from autism, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes to pancreatic cancer, thyroid cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease and—wait for it—the ongoing collapse of bee colonies.

But where then, beyond the work of Seneff and Samsel, is the proof? Well, there isn’t much hard evidence (only two long-term studies on the health effects of the chemical have been conducted). And for a complicated set of reasons. For one, historically, people who’ve challenged the biotech industry have been systematically discredited, says Pollan, "as we learned recently about Tyrone Hayes, the UC Berkeley herpetologist who ran afoul of Syngenta." Also, there’s the just-as-hard-to-prove theory that no one wants to bite the hand that feeds them.

“Some of our scientists are the ones who are the most difficult—and the biggest impediment to better research—because they’re funding is dependent on the very same agrichemical companies like Monsanto that are producing Roundup,” says Dr. Don Huber, professor emeritus of plant pathology at Purdue University (who for years consulted with Monsanto scientists). "They’re not about to go in a different direction from the people who’ve been funding them."

{%{"quote":"There are “absolutely potential adverse health effects from glyphosate,” says Hansen. But the strongest data is in cases of birth defects and non-Hodgkins lymphoma."}%}

Others agree. Many of them levelheaded, despite coming off like Oliver Stone. “Monsanto and these other companies are doing an exceptionally good job at blocking all information and data on the subject from public discourse,” stresses Dave Schubert, professor and head of the Salk Institute’s Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory.

“There is indeed an enormous amount of published data showing that Roundup is very nasty stuff, particularly at the levels currently being used (ten times more than before genetically modified, herbicide-resistant crops) and the extent of human exposure in food—a greatly allowed increase by the EPA to reflect increased use.”

Not everyone, however, is so convinced—though many are still intrigued by a possible link. “Samsel and Seneff have produced a series of plausible hypotheses,” says Sheldon Krimsky, chairman of the Council for Responsible Genetics and Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. “But that is all they are: hypotheses.”

Indeed, Krimsky himself, as sober as he remains in his reception to Samsel and Seneff’s study, cites a chapter from Earth Open Source’s 2012 paper, “GMO Myths and Truths,” in which, among many other things, glyphosate is called “toxic,” Roundup’s marketing campaign as a “safe” herbicide is “based on outdated and largely unpublished studies by manufacturers,” glyphosate’s acceptable daily intake level in the U.S. and Europe is “inaccurate and potentially dangerously high,” and “the added ingredients (adjuvants) in Roundup are themselves toxic and increase the toxicity of glyphosate by enabling it to penetrate human and animal cells more easily.”

If Bigfoot’s still a bit fuzzy, consider these words from Dr. Alessio Fasano, founder of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Celiac Research, in a 2011 interview with the gluten-free website “Gluten and autism, gluten and schizophrenia—is there a link or not?” he asked rhetorically.“I have a hard time believing that gluten has absolutely nothing to do with these behaviors.”

Many, though, do. “There is no link between Roundup and celiac,” says Dr. Stefano Guandalini, founder and medical director of the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, in response to Samsel and Seneff’s review. “The whole story is preposterous and finds a cause/effect relationship when there is none.”

Other critics have been harsher, while supporters embrace the review as evidence of what’s been plaguing them and/or their children. Already an emotional issue, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that affects upwards of 3 million people in the U.S. alone. It is triggered by gluten, the protein in wheat, barley, and rye. As yet there is no cure.

Linking celiac disease to glyphosate also stems on the belief (and a growing body of scientific literature that seems to back it up) that glyphosate, and aminomethylphosphonic acid, or AMPA, the compound glyphosate breaks down into as it decays, affects the balance of our gut microbials. These changes to our bacteria can then lead to disease, obesity, autoimmune deficiencies—and maybe even the bee-colony collapse.

“You have this very broad, extremely powerful broad-spectrum chelator that causes a tremendous level of dysbiosis,” says Dr. Huber. “When you disrupt your intestinal microflora, you’re not a happy individual.” Or healthy.

Part of the reason it’s so easy to castigate Samsel and Seneff (and others like them) with the bigfoot brush is that, as they admit, many of their observations are anecdotal and their research is based on making correlations. Seneff graphed Roundup and its use in corn and soy and the rise of celiac disease (and other autoimmune disorders) and came up with A + B = C.

“People have been trained to dismiss these types of correlations, but they’re there,” asserts Seneff, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “The data are there. You just have to connect the dots.” And the picture she has painted—glyphosate leading to celiac disease and a plethora of other maladies and autoimmune diseases—is far from pretty.

(Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumers Union, denied that the dots match up so well. “If you don’t understand biology, you’d go, Wow! They match up perfectly. If you do understand biology, those graphs don’t show anything. They’re nonsense.”)

“They looked at the biochemical impact of glyphosate relative to the biochemical impact of various diseases and found a perfect fit—they didn’t have any problem connecting the biochemical dots,” explains Dr. Huber, who warns that our “wake-up call” is just around the corner.

In the meantime, while Samsel and Seneff’s review may not yet be fully accepted, their work, and others’, should lead to better, more convincing studies, something both Dr. Huber and Krimsky agreed is worth pursuing. And Hansen, who’s still leery of embracing any link to celiac disease, notes that there are “absolutely potential adverse health effects from glyphosate,” but that the strongest data is in cases of birth defects and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

"There are growing suspicions that this supposed non-toxic pesticide is more toxic than we realized. Especially when used with the 'inert ingredients' it comes with—surfactants that help the chemical force its way into plant tissues," says Pollan. "There are also reports on illness around the big round-up soy fields in Brazil and Argentina. To me it seems like a lot of smoke and I wouldn’t be surprised to find fire.”

Until then, voices in the wilderness like Samsel and Seneff and Dr. Huber will continue to proselytize about the evils of their personal Bigfoot, and hope to prove Pollan right, and vindicate their theories. “The proof isn’t there,” says Seneff, “but the innuendo is.”

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Sticking It to Diets: An Interview with Matt Fitzgerald

In his new book Diet Cults, Matt Fitzgerald argues against the idea that there is any one "best" way to eat. Along the way, he covers popular diets such as Atkins, the raw-food movement, and the Paleo Diet, each time exploring the dangers of excluding an entire food group. By the end of the book, Fitzgerald replaces the dogma of dieting with a proposal he calls "agnostic healthy eating." In time for the release of his new book, we caught up with Fitzgerald to discuss what belongs on the modern athlete's plate. 

OUTSIDE: What led you to write Diet Cults?
FITZGERALD: Mainstream science is on one side, saying there’s no single ideal diet for humans. But all around us, popular diets are claiming that they are the healthiest diet for all. It’s a fundamental contradiction. My gut instinct was that it was not rational to say any one diet is the best way to eat. I wanted to offer an alternative.

Why are people so passionate about diets?
Food is such a basic symbol of identity. We become emotionally invested. Even three-month-old infants show dislike for puppets who don’t like the food they like. I think we are all susceptible to the mythology that one diet is best.

Have you ever fallen for a diet cult?
Maybe supplements in some cases. I am becoming much more skeptical toward initial positive research on supplements, because if you wait long enough, some negative research comes out too.

In your book, you propose we embrace agnostic healthy eating. How do people eat like this?
They don’t demonize any nutrients. No entire food categories are eliminated. They have fruits and vegetables with almost every meal. There aren’t a lot of fried foods or sweets. It’s pretty basic stuff, but can fuel the best athletes and weekend warriors like us. 

Do a lot of people already embrace agnostic healthy eating?
The silent majority of health conscious eaters out there want to eat healthy and are turned off by diet cults. In my exposure to world-class endurance athletes, very few Olympic-caliber athletes do any kind of diet with a name. They don’t demonize any nutrient. My personal instinct is that I don’t want to trust fear mongering salesmen who vilify a lot of the food people eat.

So elite endurance athletes are less likely to embrace diet cults. What about recreational athletes?
My perception is that amateur athletes are quite a bit more likely to go for diet cults. I have two theories on this. One is the sour grapes theory: That when competitive people find they can’t win races, the point of the sport switches from winning to doing it correctly. Barefoot running, Crossfit Endurance, and a lot of diets fall into that. Athletes who can win races don’t want to mess with the formula that works because a lot is at stake. The other part of it is that in today’s world, it can be hard to eat healthy. You have to swim against the stream. The diet cult does the work of how to eat healthy for you.

{%{"quote":"“The [Paleo Diet] doctrine is absurd. It is a fantasy.”"}%}

Diet cults tend to be trendy. That happened with the Atkins diet a decade ago, and the Paleo Diet in recent years. Are all diet cults destined to fade away eventually?
In the broader context, I believe diet cults have always been with us and always be. The Kosher eating of the Jews is a diet cult. The pleasure eating of the Food Network shows is an ongoing phenomenon. Vegetarianism has ancient pedigree. I’d guess some version of Paleo will persist because there’s something so fundamental in the idea of going back to our early paradise.

You devote a section in your book to the Paleo Diet. What’s your take on it?
The doctrine is absurd. It is a fantasy. The diet is based on a 19th-century misunderstanding that evolutionary adaptation moves at a glacial pace. The Paleo idea that no animal should eat anything it hasn’t eaten before is silly. There was the moment when chimps leapt out of trees and had to adapt their diet. Radical changes came. We started eating meat, cooking food, and traveling all over the planet. There’s also epigenetic adaptation, where genes you already have are switched on and off. Diet adaptation can happen very quickly. As for whether the diet is healthy: It can be very healthy, but the way a lot of people do it, with indiscriminate heavy meat eating, is not very healthy. I think people should eat a lot more fish and high quality meat. I see a lot of Paleo followers gobbling huge amounts of bacon. 

Another chapter in your book talks about the controversy over hydrating with sugary sports drinks. What do you think about this?
People have this premise that sugar and carbs are always bad and try to explain away 50 years of research. You don’t want a lot of sugar in your diet when you aren’t exercising, but sugar is a performance enhancer. When you’re exercising, you want the fastest fuel you can get, and sugar is the highest octane stuff. I’m a big believer in fueling for performance.

A number of athletes have tried low-carb approaches in recent years. Is this diet cult effective?
If there’s any nutrient an athlete should go out of their way for, it’s carbohydrates. We know athletes in heavy training on high-carb diets are better able to absorb that training. Very few Olympic-caliber athletes mess around with this.

What about all the people who don’t care about athletic performance, but just want a diet that helps them lose weight?
I call it the suck-it-up diet. The secret to successful weight loss is motivation. Get out of the mindset of finding one way that works, and realize a lot of ways work. You still have to choose something specific. Anyone who loses weight and keeps it off doesn’t just wing it. They have rules and stick to them, but they’re not necessarily the specific rules of a diet cult.

How would you rate your own diet?
It’s much better than average. My diet looks pretty normal, but is high quality on two levels. The first is that it’s weighed heavily toward the highest quality food types, such as fruits and vegetables. I have very few fried foods and sweets, and not a lot of refined grains. I eat more fish than any other kind of meat. It’s also quality in that I buy high quality food, such as organic food, and grass fed beef, and try to pay a lot of attention to ingredient quality. But I still have at least one beer a day. My wife and I like to eat out. We celebrated my birthday on Saturday and I had French fries at a restaurant, and I almost never eat them.

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Performance-Enhanced and Sex-Driven

Probiotics are back (yes, they were once a thing) and a growing number of companies claim that by adding live microorganisms, bacteria does the body good. Dannon’s Activia yogurt touts probiotics as a way to regulate the digestive system. Powerful Yogurt and Naked Pizza serve up similar health claims. The brisk business in beneficial bacteria brings in around $28 billion a year. With names like Lactobaccili, Streptococci, and Bifidobacteria, these microorganisms have been linked to lower rates of constipation, ulcerative colitis, and chronic diarrhea. Consult with Dr. Google and you might find that probiotics are the next Prozac, the cure for acne, and a surefire boost to your sex appeal.

Despite nearly a century of research—first on “scientifically soured milk” and life-prolonging yogurts—the concept remains largely under-researched and oversold. At the same time, scientists are finding that the trillions of microorganisms, as many as 10,000 different species, or about 160 species per person, flourish in our warm, wet intestines. Microbes influence our health, sometimes far beyond the gut itself. If the human microbiota, as it’s known, is an integral part of overall health and physical fitness, could microbes serve as performance-enhancing microorganisms?

One study—known, in some circles, as the “Great Balls of Fire”—claimed that probiotic yogurt imbued male mice with bigger balls and a behavior the researchers called swagger. The lead investigator, Susan Erdman, a cancer biologist at MIT in Cambridge, Mass, is a researcher with an unflagging enthusiasm for her work (and also a dedicated athlete). Three years ago, quite by chance, she told me, a colleague had noticed that the female mice in her lab colony were becoming so unbelievably shiny, they looked almost opalescent.

“I have dogs at home,” Erdman says. “Some of them go after the yogurt containers and lick them out when we’re done. I remember thinking, ‘Zappy is a black dog who glows like crazy.’” Back in the lab, colleagues began to notice that male mice had large, protruding testicles. (She showed one video of a mouse strutting around his cage like overeager stud at an oonts-oonts nightclub.) The animals exhibited slim physiques and had little abdominal fat. What gave them a youthful edge: yogurt.

Erdman suspects that bacteria confer a “glow of health” in aging animals, essentially mimicking the peak health of younger animals. In a series of recently published studies, she examined mice fed an isolated strain of bacteria called Lactobacillus reuteri, a microorganism originally isolated from human breast milk. Drinking the probiotic infusions halved a mouse’s body weight, no matter how much gooey “fast-food” chow they ate. The bacteria sped the healing of superficial skin wounds. In males, it led to heavier testes. “We ended up with a triad of features that we affectionately call shiny, skinny, and sexy,” she says. “These are indications of supreme physical fitness.”

{%{"quote":"“We should be able to harness probiotic microbes just as we’ve harnessed microbes to make our bread and brew our beer.”"}%}

Probiotic bacteria, which tend to number in the billions, don’t stick around with the tens of trillions of microorganisms already living in the gut. Yet, just passing through appears to shake things up and the ingested microbes stimulate the body’s immune cells, though the exact mechanism behind the effect remains unknown.

The strain Erdman studied, for example, ushered in a cascade of hormonal changes connected with an animal’s thyroid, adrenals, and gonads. “When we started feeding them microbes, the mice suddenly became more active,” she says. “How would that translate into people? You would presume that they would suddenly have more desire to get up and move around—increased energy levels, changes in metabolism, that’s mostly a good thing, right?”

So far, despite any speculation, there’s only tantalizing hints for how research in mice might translate into healthy humans. In one 2011 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers examined 1.6 million years of data to determine what factors caused Americans to gain weight as we age. Potato chips, processed meats, and sugary drinks were the worst for lean body mass. People who ate yogurt, on average, lost about one pound every four years. Today, the U.S. National Institutes of Health lists hundreds of trials on probiotics—from dental health to weight loss—and most of the commercially available Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria strains target gastrointestinal disorders.

If a particular active ingredient, or cocktails of organisms, treats diarrhea, then another set of organisms may better stave off post-marathon fatigue. (After all, you don’t grab any random pill when you’re sick.) Perhaps probiotics altering digestion also give athletes a boost by contributing to good overall health. In the few small studies thus far—hinting at longer run-to-exhaustion times and improved immune response of fatigued athletes—the existing concoctions do not appear to be a performance panacea. Moreover, because people may carry genes that make them more or less responsive to probiotics, physicians may need to get a sense of who you are as an individual before recommending a microbial cocktail that would be particularly good for bringing out the best you that you could be.

Today, there’s still a substantial gap between the lab incubator and your mouth. But looking around, you might never notice that. In the U.S., there’s no standard of labeling for probiotics. Marketing claims go largely unregulated. “If you go to your local pharmacy or supermarket, you will see shelves with compounds labelled as probiotics,” says Martin J. Blaser, a microbiologist at New York University and author of the book Missing Microbes. “Each of them has different claims for what they can do. They represent many different organisms. What I can say for sure is that almost none of them has been well tested—with respect to any of the claims.”

Not that scientists doubt the importance of these microorganisms. Far from it. Are the most important microbes may be the ones we evolved with for millions of years and acquire early in life? Blaser worries that we’re eradicating these species through the indiscriminate use of antibiotics. (Populations such as the Swedes, using far fewer antibiotics per capita, he says, are at least as healthy or healthier as we are.) Once we better know what’s missing, he says, we can expect to deliberately add them back in. “At some point in the future, we will have scientifically based, well-tested probiotics that will have specific uses to improve human health. We should be able to harness specific microbes to use them for our advantage just as we’ve harnessed microbes make our bread and brew our beer.”

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Showdown: Walmart vs. Whole Foods Organic Prices

In April, big box chain Walmart announced it would carry organic food products, claiming that its Wild Oats packaged goods will save customers “25 percent or more” compared to other national brand organic products.

Until now, most organic foods have cost more than non-organic foods because, as Wild Oats CEO Tom Casey told NPR, the “production and distribution of organic food is still highly fragmented,” meaning they are not done on a large enough scale to become cost effective. Walmart’s plans to sell more than 100 organic products at more than 4,000 stores across the U.S. should increase the efficiency of organic food production, thereby dropping costs.   

Consumer Reports put together a comparison of Wild Oats products and the best possible deals they could find at supermarkets around Yonkers, New York. We decided to see how Walmart’s prices measure up to the prices at popular organic grocer, Whole Foods. Check out the chart below to see what we found. 

(Interesting side note: Wild Oats started out in Boulder, Colorado in 1987.  Whole Foods bought Wild Oats in 2007 for $565 million, then was forced to sell the brand in 2009 because of antitrust concerns.)

Whole Foods prices reflect the lowest organic prices found at Whole Foods in Torrance, California, on May 5. Walmart prices were first reported by the Consumer Reports. Groceries prices can vary widely by state and city, making comparisons difficult.*


In most cases, Walmart’s organic offerings are significantly cheaper than those found at Whole Foods. If you think that has Whole Foods scared, though, think again. As Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb told CNBC, “Of all the customers in the market, their customers overlap the least with ours.”

*This paragraph was modified to clarify that we have not conducted a direct comparison and that prices vary widely across states. The chart has also been updated to reflect the lowest product prices from the Torrance, California, Whole Foods. An earlier version of this piece overstated the cost of four products found at the Torrance Whole Foods. 

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