As National Food Safety Month draws to a close, I grapple with a growing suspicion that many things we do to ensure a safe food supply today conflicts with what our body and the planet needs to keep us safe over time.
It’s true we still need to wash our hands with soap and water, it’s a good idea to keep kitchen surfaces clean and important to follow safe food handling procedures. The basics work, however our large scale assault on bacteria through every stage of food production may actually undermine our health and the health of the planet in the long run.
Hundreds of years ago scientists linked disease with the presence of bacteria. Anton van Leeuwenhoek, discovered the world of micro-organisms, originally referring to them as animalcules. Later Louie Pasteur’s research linked the growth of micro-organisms with food spoilage. He soon found he could destroy the pathogens when he heated milk to an temperature between 60 and 100 degrees Celsius.
Pasteur then investigated the possibility that bacteria could lead to disease in animals and man. Fellow scientists rapidly abandoned the theory of spontaneous generation, and soon developed alcohol based antiseptics and safer ways to perform surgery.
Still, it wasn’t until Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906 that the public finally appreciated the link between bacteria and food safety. Immediate and intense public outcry led to the passage of our first food safety laws that same year. We’ve been busy eradicating bacteria at every link in the food chain ever since.
We compromise microbes all the time.
- ON CONVENTIONAL FARMS glyphosate, the active ingredient in the most popular herbicide Round Up used in commercial agriculture as well as your own garden, specifically disrupts a key enzymatic pathway in both plants and microbes. We use so much glyphosate, that it can be measure in rain drops in the Midwest at certain times of year and can also be measured in our food supply.
- ON THE RANCH AND ESPECIALLY IN CONFINED AGRICULTURAL FEEDING OPERATIONS sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics are routinely fed to conventionally raised animals as growth agents and to protect them from disease when animals are housed in excessively crowded conditions away from the pasture. Today industry slowly moves away from the practice, however the impact on an animal’s gut microbes is significant and is thought to contribute to increasing incidence of antibiotic resistance.
- TRANSPORTING, STORING AND PROCESSING FOOD is increasingly fraught with risk for the microbes. Crops are sprayed with antimicrobial agents, washed with chlorine, or irradiated to get rid of potential pathogens. Most food destined to be processed and packaged for the supermarket are heated or treated in some way to ensure “safety”, mostly removing risk of liability for the food manufacturer, the food broker, and the retail business that ultimately serves the consumer. The result is a highly processed, adulterated, and mostly sterile food supply that destroys too much of the healthful bacteria along with any potential bad players.
- AT HOME too many consumers still rely on antimicrobial everything in a misguided attempt to clean our homes and protect our families. I love returning to basics, using a mix of baking soda, vinegar and soap to clean almost everything in the house. Easy on the environment, easy on our bodies, and easy on the budget, too!
We are running headfirst into a maelstrom of metabolic and auto immune disease as a result of our emphatic focus on hygiene. We face an increasingly challenging dilemma. How do we prevent food borne illness and at the same time reclaim missing microbes that are increasingly linked to our health and the health of the planet?
BUILDING AND MAINTAINING MICROBIAL DIVERSITY
Thankfully we now appreciate that what we eat profoundly influences the microbial diversity in our gut, so it is possible to eat to maximize gut health. I’m not sure what the answer is the world of big food, but at home we have options. Still remember everyone is different. Especially if you already suffer from some gastrointestinal distress or disease, you should run these ideas by your health care provider. Throwing more microbes at an issue doesn’t always help and potentially can harm.
1. Eat whole foods, a mix of cooked and raw that feed healthy microbes in your gut. Healthy gut microbes feed on fiber to produce short chain fatty acids (SCFA) The SCFA support greater intestinal integrity and a healthier immune system. Organic foods offer greater benefit to the planet, but consumer beware. There’s plenty of highly processed and refined organic junk food on market shelves today.
2. Choose fresh produce in season that hasn’t been irradiated or grown with industrial chemicals including herbicides and pesticides. This is the best argument for planting a garden or shopping at farmer’s markets that allows each of us to eat very close to the earth. And don’t be afraid of a little healthy organic soil. Most research reveals that folks living close to the earth enjoy better gut health.
3. Purchase dairy, eggs, meats, poultry and fish grown sustainably without the use of hormones or antibiotics. Ideally the animals are fed their natural diet that is also grown without intensive chemical inputs. In best case scenarios, farmers set up bio-dynamic systems that take full advantage of nutrient recycling the way nature intended. Waste from the animals feeds the soil which feeds the plants that feed grazing animals. And beneficial microbes contribute every step of the way.
3. Introduce fermented foods. The range and diversity of microbes overwhelming trumps more expensive, less reliable sources of probiotic supplements. Be sure to start slow and test the waters. And in case you’re interested in making your own fermented foods but would like a little guidance, let me know.
Today we are learning that eating better means making better food choices but also paying attention to how our food is grown, how it is processed and ultimately it’s impact in our body and the entire ecosystem. Humans have co-evolved with bacteria. Now we need to figure out how to live with the microbes, not merely eradicate them.