Gluten-free products are great for anyone who is sensitive to wheat and gluten. But “gluten-free” doesn’t always mean “environmentally friendly.” If your sans-gluten fare is heavily packaged and high in unsustainable ingredients, you may be helping your gut but harming the planet. But you can have the best of both worlds-here’s how:
- Choose organic. It’s the No. 1 way to be both environmentally friendly and gluten-free. When you see the organic label on gluten-free packaged foods, you’ll know you’re avoiding pesticide residues that have been linked to nervous system problems, reproductive disease, and pediatric cancer in kids. You’ll also avoid GMOs, genetically modified organisms that can alter bacterial balance in the gut and may contribute to obesity and lower immune response.
- Pay attention to packaging. Gluten-free convenience foods may be packaged in petroleum-based products that are hard to recycle; toxic compounds are also emitted in the process of manufacturing food-packaging materials. Packaging that can’t be recycled ends up in landfills or waterways, threatening the marine environment. Especially avoid products packaged in cling wrap, Styrofoam, or plastic bottles; besides being devastating for the environment, they’re also dangerous to health. Phthalates in plastic wrap and polystyrene in Styrofoam are carcinogenic, and bisphenol A (BPA) in plastic bottles can damage the brain and prostate gland in the developing fetus, infants, and children. Look for minimally packaged products, or choose those in cellulose-based packaging, biodegradable or recyclable materials.
- Be wary of rice. Many gluten-free baked goods are high in rice flour. But growing rice has major environmental impacts. Rice production uses an estimated one-third of the earth’s fresh water, and contributes to soil erosion, pesticides in the environment, and methane gas production. And a study by the Pesticide Action Network of North America identified more than 40 different pesticides on rice grown in California, many of which are known to have toxic effects. Even organic rice may be contaminated with arsenic from insecticides that can remain in the soil for decades. New growing practices are being developed to help farmers produce more rice with less water; in the meantime, lessen your rice consumption and focus on foods that contain oats, quinoa, or other gluten-free grains. And when you do eat rice, stick with eco-conscious companies such as Lundberg, Lotus Foods, TruRoots, and Alter Eco.
- Avoid palm oil. Used in place of butter in many gluten-free snacks, palm oil is an environmental nightmare. Palm oil plantations have destroyed huge tracts of rain forests and peat bogs. The destruction of rain forests has endangered hundreds of animal species, and peat bogs are
environmentally valuable for their ability to sequester carbon dioxide and reduce the effects of global warming. Besides that, palm oil is known for its ability to raise harmful LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. While we’re on the subject of oils, also avoid canola. Unless it’s organic, chances are it contains GMOs and has been engineered to withstand very high doses of pesticides. Skip both palm oil and canola oil, and choose products made with coconut oil instead-it’s less environmentally harmful and better for your health.
- Go vegan. Or, if you’re avoiding glutenous grains, don’t replace them with meat and dairy. Livestock production creates 18 percent of greenhouse gases, and the Environmental Defense Fund estimates that if every American skipped chicken at one meal, it would equal the carbon dioxides savings of taking half a million cars off the roads. Livestock production is also the largest source of water pollution, creating about a third of the nitrogen and phosphorus in US freshwater resources. And nearly 70 percent of forested land in the Amazon was cleared for the purpose of pasturing cattle. Supplement your gluten-free diet with beans, nuts, and seeds-not meat. And check labels on packaged goods. You’ll be surprised by how many contain some kind of dairy.
- Buy local. You can eat the cleanest gluten-free fare around, but if it’s shipped cross-country, you’re creating a significant carbon footprint: a 3-pound package shipped by truck across the country
creates 12 pounds of carbon dioxide. And while your gluten-free favorites may be made locally, their ingredients may be sourced from China, the Philippines, or other international locations. Buying local (produced within a 300-mile radius) products that are made with domestically sourced ingredients dramatically reduces fossil fuel consumption. Shop at farmer’s markets or specialty stores that may carry goods from local producers. Many natural foods stores also label their products’ origin, making it even easier to stay at least a little more local.
- Check your cookies. Many gluten-free varieties contain sugar, corn, corn syrup, or soy products, ingredients that may be heavily treated with pesticides, or are likely to contain GMOs-bad for the environment and your health. The same goes for crackers, pretzels, cereals, breads, and other gluten-free baked goods. About 95 percent of sugar beets, used to make sugar crystals, are genetically modified, and sugar cane production is responsible for habitat destruction, intensive use of water and pesticides, and polluted wastewater discharge from the production process. Corn, often used in gluten-free products, probably contains GMOs-about 88 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. And corn production depletes soil nutrients, contributes to erosion, and requires more pesticides and fertilizer. The process of chemically altering corn to produce high-fructose corn syrup is also energy-intensive and environmentally harmful. And about 93 percent of soybeans are genetically modified. Read labels carefully, or better yet, make your own gluten-free cookies, cakes, and other baked goods from clean, environmentally sound ingredients.