For years, I was deeply embedded in the wellness world in my own life. Then I decided to work in the industry as a holistic nutritionist, praising and promoting the newest alternative health treatments and products.
But not only was I unable to back it all up, I was dripping with self-righteousness over my lifestyle.
At the time, I thought my credentials were sufficient. In Canada, where I live, there is no professional governing organization for holistic nutritionists and I had only a year of education before I was certified in 2015 — nowhere near what it takes to qualify as a medical practitioner. My program discouraged us from saying “treat," "cure," "heal" or "prevent” when addressing health-related issues. Although I was very careful to abide by these guidelines, many others in wellness are not.
Clients came to me looking for advice on meal plans, supplement recommendations and general guidelines on how to live a more natural and holistic life. They would usually have a specific issue they wanted to address, such as increasing energy levels, sleeping better and coping with food intolerances. Clients filled out a detailed form about their dietary and lifestyle habits, and I had them chart to see how they were eating in a week.
Sometimes I had one-time consultations where I would assess the individual needs of each client and provide them with a comprehensive lifestyle and nutritional plan, including a meal plan and any supplements I recommended. Other clients I saw more often.
My work as a holistic nutritionist — "holistic" because I was trying to improve clients' health by addressing the "whole person," including their mind, body and spirit — was primarily online. I had a successful blog, but found prospective clients primarily through an Instagram account I started in 2014, when I was in nutritional school. Keeping up my image of wellness online was crucial to my business.
Marketing and misinformation
During this phase, a meal in my home would have included only organic and non-genetically modified organisms (non-GMO) foods. I thought this was the best way to rid your diet of toxins and pesticides. In reality, this isn’t quite the case. The U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a list of synthetic substances that organic growers are permitted to use on their crops and still maintain their “organic” label.
Marketing that organic food is cleaner is all around us. Just take a look at the campaign “Skip the Chemicals.” It encourages consumers to fear the scary-sounding names of chemicals and adopt a better-safe-than-sorry attitude toward their food. Ultimately, though, it steers consumers toward more costly organic foods, although there is no evidence that organic foods are more nutritious.
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The “Dirty Dozen” list is another marketing ploy. Not only did I have this list stuck to my fridge at home, I also encouraged my clients to download and share it. Using pesticide residue data from the USDA, it ranks food by the levels of detected pesticides to generate a list of the top 12 fruits and vegetables consumers should avoid in their conventional versions.
Take strawberries, which topped the list in 2018. The USDA published test results on tens of thousands of nonorganic fruit and vegetable samples across the country. Most of the samples of strawberries showed residues of at least one kind of pesticide and, in one sample of strawberries, 22 different pesticide residues were detected — but that doesn’t mean the pack of strawberries you buy at the grocery store will have 22 pesticides.
"Remember, though, that the presence of a residue is not equal to the presence of risk!” wrote Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society. “What matters is not the variety of residues detected, but whether these are in excess of the amounts regulatory agencies deem to be safe." In fact, there are "virtually no cases in which the levels deemed to be safe are exceeded.”
But this important contextual information isn't included. After all, scared consumers send donations.
A 2011 study in The Journal of Toxicology found that the levels of residue detected are 1,000 to 30,000 times below the Environmental Protection Agency’s already conservative safety limits (known as “tolerances”). Nonorganic versions of these foods are incredibly safe for us to eat.
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Don't underestimate the influence that labels can have. One example of deceptive marketing is slapped on roughly 61,000 food products — the little butterfly seal from the Non-GMO Project. This perpetuates the false idea that GMOs are unsafe. It’s gotten so ridiculous that products like salt, which has no genes, are labeled non-GMO. You’ll see this label on other goods like lettuce and blueberries, even though genetically modified versions of these products don’t exist in the marketplace.
Supplements are no substitute
I was baffled to learn that government agencies, international health organizations and the scientific community have affirmed the safety of genetically modified foods. But the science position is losing people's hearts and minds. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that only 37% of the general public believed that genetically modified foods were generally safe to consume, versus 88% of American Association for the Advancement of Science scientists polled.
What prompted me to start looking into genetically modified foods was the uncertainty I was encountering with my clients.
Many of them were missing the basics: sleep, water, fruits and vegetables. They were also avoiding real food out of a fear of GMOs and taking a multitude of supplements (a $35 billion business in the United States) to replace missing nutrients. My clients were confused by the contradictory information they were getting on the internet.
I started looking into the sources of my sources, only to find anecdotes being presented as evidence and antiquated, and outdated studies being used to confirm biases.
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I also found myself sacrificing my general quality of life to justify the heavy financial burden of eating organic. I was eating beyond my means and choosing organic avocados over occasional meals out with friends. Striving to live up to the ideal natural and holistic lifestyle started to take a toll on my well-being.
In 2017, I eventually made the difficult decision to turn away from the fad-diet and corporation-hating lifestyle I was living and ended my business. My intention is not to demonize the organic food industry — I simply incorrectly believed that my dogmatism against toxins and pesticides was based on solid science. But I was actually rejecting science. I sought out media that only confirmed my preexisting bias.
Do what I wish I had done sooner and open yourself up to the research. Don’t take the word of a parent you met at your kid’s soccer practice or from a theory you overheard in yoga. Choose based on facts. Your pocketbook and peace of mind will thank you.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Wellness, organic food culture peddles misinformation about safe GMOs