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Food documentary ‘Secret Ingredients’ challenges the idea that GMOs and pesticides are safe
A soybean field is fumigated with glyphosate, a herbicide used to maintain crops of transgenic seeds. Pablo Aharonian/Getty Images

If you’re confused about what you should be eating, a new documentary out Wednesday is probably going to make that confusion worse.

Secret Ingredients shares the dramatic and often emotional stories of several families who changed their lives by switching to organic diets free of genetically modified organisms. Filmmakers Jeffrey Smith, a consumer advocate and director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, and Amy Hart, the film’s creative director, tear into the dangers of GMOs and pesticides, questioning the safety and science around the food we eat.

The film opens on Kathleen DiChiara, who experienced sudden-onset neuropathy in her legs and ultimately lost the ability to walk. DiChiara, who battled several chronic illnesses — including myofascial pain syndrome, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome — says she eventually lost her job due to her many health ailments.

Poster art for ‘Secret Ingredients’
Poster art for ‘Secret Ingredients’ Secret Ingredients

We learn DiChiara’s three sons, too, faced their own set of afflictions. The oldest, who experienced language disorder and severe social anxiety, was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Her middle son had a severe case of asthma, bloating, discomfort and irritability. Her youngest son was covered in a body-wide rash that was always agitated. DiChiara’s husband, Stephen, developed a benign tumor in his breast. As DiChiara says in the film, her family of five — herself included — was combatting a total of 21 chronic diseases.

Kathleen DiChiara is one of the main stars of ‘Secret Ingredients.’
Kathleen DiChiara is one of the main stars of ‘Secret Ingredients.’ Secret Ingredients

Other families, with some similar and some vastly different conditions, speak directly to the camera throughout the film as they face issues including miscarriage, food allergies and several other cases of autism.

Everyone interviewed came to the same conclusion: Switching to an all organic, non-GMO diet cured their conditions. We learn at the end of the film that DiChiara has regained her mobility, and her oldest son no longer meets criteria for autism spectrum disorder. “I don’t think all autism is caused by genetically modified foods, but I don’t think any child with autism can recover by eating GMOs,” DiChiara says. While conventional science says there is no cure for autism, burgeoning research suggests that special diets can have a positive impact on some people with autism.

Beyond these personal interviews, the film explores the history and impact of GMOs and glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup (now owned by Bayer), which is the brand name for the most commonly used pesticide. Glyphosate, which the World Health Organization has characterized as a “probable carcinogen,” is used to promote the growth of crops around the country.

GMOs, which are treated with glyphosate, are engineered to be “Roundup Ready,” cardiologist Jeff Ritterman explains in the film, adding that they can survive the pesticide that would otherwise kill the crops. The pesticide can remain in the food that is inevitably consumed by humans. “The entire enterprise of GMOs amounts to nothing more than making plants tolerant to poisons so we can use a lot of poison,” Ritterman says.

An image from ‘Secret Ingredients’ depicts how similar foods can contain very different ingredients.
An image from ‘Secret Ingredients’ depicts how similar foods can contain very different ingredients. Secret Ingredients

According to the film, Glyphosate was originally formulated to be an industrial cleaner, and it can destroy metals and minerals, which neurologist David Perlmutter says in the film is not a good thing. Adept at cleaning out pipes, glyphosate can rid the human gut of good bacteria, the kind that regulates inflammation of the brain and can control the production serotonin and dopamine, which are considered “feel-good” chemicals that affect our moods, says Perlmutter.

The film has two glaring omissions: First, organic foods aren’t necessarily safe from glyphosate. A Environmental Working Group report published in August that focused on the presence of glyphosate in oat-based foods found that traces of the chemical were present in some organic foods, though at lower levels than in conventional foods. Second, the film fails to address organic food’s barrier of access. While the movie suggests that organic food is healthier and everyone should be eating it, it doesn’t look at the cost or the availability of organic foods around the country, which surely varies due to several, often uncontrollable factors.

Secret Ingredients may instill fear in its viewers: Are industry scientists and groups like the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency knowingly leading American consumers to toxic territory? This isn’t a question that can be answered in the one-sided, 80-minute movie. But it’s probably a good one to keep investigating.