It’s not easy being green (and gluten- or allergy-free)

Happy Earth Day! Yesterday in Prospect Park I saw two young guys tromping around the lake, drumming on reclaimed water cooler jugs and chanting “Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!,” with a group of kids and parents following behind and half-heartedly shaking the little recycled maraca-things they’d clearly made earlier in the outing. I’m sure Mother Nature found it cute. I found it a good reminder to write this blog post.

Gluten-free often gets lumped in with organic and green in marketing and in popular imagination. I find this odd. Sure, reading labels on processed foods may make you more aware of what weird chemicals you’re putting into your body, and from there you might make the leap to increased awareness of what those chemicals may do to, say, bodies of water. (Dana at Celiac Kiddo wrote a great post about beaver butt in breakfast cereal and what exactly “natural ingredients” means—related and definitely worth a read.)

But overall, I find it’s not that easy to be both green and gluten-free. I’m sure anyone who’s ever had to worry about gluten and allergy contamination can relate; maintaining a clean, contamination-free environment can involve a lot of waste.

There’s the inevitable pantry cleaning at the start and the rallying cry, “When in doubt, throw it out!” Might you have dipped a spoon into first the flour and then the sugar? Toss the sugar. Did a knife go onto toast and then into the jam? Ditch the jar. And while you’re throwing out food right and left, go ahead and buy yourself a new dedicated cutting board, and try not to think about plastic and landfills.

We’re encouraged to buy designated gluten-free toasters, which means double the appliances to plug in, using double the electricity—and no, I don’t believe you remember to unplug your appliances when they aren’t in use.

My sponge usage went through the roof when I went gluten-free, as I’ve written before. Besides that, there’s paper towels for cleaning, parchment paper for baking, and ziploc bags for everything. I also use a lot more soap, which may or may not be harmful to the environment.

And all that is just at home. There’s more! At the grocery store, where before I might have skipped bagging my potatoes and apples, now I worry about those mystery stains on the conveyor belt and opt for the extra plastic. Packaged ingredients, with their FDA-regulated ingredients labels and airtight seals, are my friends. And shopping from the bulk bins to reduce packaging? Forget about it! You don’t know where those scoops have been!

We nod approvingly at muffins being baked in a separate facility and shipped to our local bakeries in individual shrinkwrap. We ask that Chipotle employees wear new gloves while preparing our burritos. And when we can’t find safe places to dine out, we buy individually packaged power bars to see us through.

I’ve even started using more plastic utensils and cups, because I bring meals with me when I’m out instead of stopping off somewhere to eat, and because I don’t trust these items to be clean enough at friends’ homes (no offense).

If you seek organic and non-GMO foods, you may find it harder when purchasing gluten-free products, many of which include corn (here’s a pretty recent list of foods, maintained by a gluten-free, vegan mom blogger, that are non-GMO and gluten-free). I can’t seem to get worked up about GMOs myself, but I understand there’s a lot of anxiety surrounding their health and environmental impact—an anxiety that may be compounded by gluten or allergen concerns.

Organic, natural body care products may also be more likely to include wheat or dairy proteins because these are “natural” alternatives to the chemicals in the big guys. This means if you’re avoiding those proteins, you must reject the purportedly greener options.

For people with severe seasonal allergies to, e.g., pollen, there’s a whole other set of energy expenditures to add into the mix: more laundry-washing, more vacuuming, more air conditioning. Those with serious allergies may also drive their cars during this season more often than they walk or bike. (Amanda at Celiac and Allergy Adventures has written here about the measures she takes during asthma/allergy season.)

So you see? It’s not that easy being green! When we’re expending lots of extra energy ourselves to rigidly control our immediate environment, it’s harder to maintain some of those little footprint-reducing habits we once cherished. Luckily, this doesn’t mean you can’t be green.

The safest foods in the world for most allergies and the gluten-free diet are fresh fruits and vegetables—whole foods that (as long as you buy in season) are pretty darn low in environmental impact. You can even consider going meatless for at least some meals, which is touted far and wide as a simple way to reduce one’s environmental impact. Yes, it can also be a bit harder to maintain a balanced diet while avoiding gluten or allergens and meat and dairy/eggs, but it’s nowhere near as tough as some will have you believe.

You can still keep an eye on your overall energy and water usage (and a dishwasher, widely considered the most effective way to clean contaminated dishes for those lucky enough to own one, is also often more energy- and water-efficient than hand-washing).

And (unless you do have the aforementioned severe seasonal allergies) you can always plant a tree or make an effort to walk or bike more, use public transportation more, and drive less, none of which have much of anything to do with gluten.

Tell me: Do you consider yourself an environmentalist? What do you do to reduce your footprint, if so? Do you find it harder to do while on a gluten- or allergy-free diet? What are your tips for managing both at once? And how are you celebrating Earth Day?

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12 thoughts on “It’s not easy being green (and gluten- or allergy-free)

  1. So true! And thanks for the beaver butt shout out 🙂 Um, happy earth day? Excuse me while I go refill my paper towel roll.
    -Dana

  2. Amanda says:

    Ugh, yes I do find it hard, but I try. I am medicated to the extreme (literally like 7 different meds during allergy season, which is year-round for me) so I try to walk more and bike more. Only when it’s EXTREMELY awful on this amount of medication do I have to avoid going outside.

    But you really raise a great point. In our efforts to be clean and avoid cross-contamination and allergens, we produce a lot of waste.

  3. These are things no one truly gets. It ain’t easy being green.

  4. Laurie C says:

    I’m extra careful about germs which leads to more use of paper/water/soap resources in the same way that being careful about gluten-contamination does. I try to make up for this in other ways, but I’m not really a great environmentalist, I guess, and always seem to end up with a couple of dozen plastic bags of various sizes every week or so.

  5. I recycle, don’t have a dishwasher and shop mostly at Whole Foods (due to gluten allergy) – does that count as an environmentalist?

    • Molly says:

      Close enough! 🙂 Though like I mentioned, apparently dishwashers are actually pretty good for the environment, especially compared to certain particularly inefficient handwashing methods like leaving the hot water running for many minutes or overdoing it on the soap. Who knew!

      • I was wondering about that – because I can’t decide if it’s better to wash dishes in a full sink of hot, soapy water or leave the faucet running (therefore not making me an environmentalist). But I get so freaked out that I’m not getting my dishes clean by dunking them in a sink full of little food particles…..the horror! 🙂

  6. vegetarianmamma says:

    When all the food allergies hit in our house our footprint got bigger. We have been trying to slowly reduce it again! 🙂

    • Molly says:

      Nice! Apparently it’s hard to establish multiple habits at once, so it makes sense to do it in waves. What have you been doing to reduce?

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