We hear so much about food allergies today that comedian rifs are almost cliche. However, the phenomena is real as allergies and lesser understood food sensitivities continue to escalate. In addition, data show full 26% of all Americans struggle with some form of auto-immune disease. What gives?
I asked a microbiologist about the role of farming practices, food manufacturing, and autoimmune disease on a recent visit to Micropia, a museum dedicated to the study of microbes in Amsterdam. The microbiologist works at the museum which houses a functional lab. After her presentation to guests, she answered my question: “When we lose our microbial diversity, we develop auto immune disease.”
MICROBES INFLUENCE EVERYTHING
I swallowed hard and nodded. This information corroborated well with what I learned in An Epidemic of Absence by Moises Velasquez-Mannoff.
In his exhaustive research, Moises follows a trail of evidence, noting that autoimmune disease was not unknown centuries ago, but mostly reserved for the upper class. It was the wealthy who first stepped out of the gutter and began their wayward journey towards a supposedly cleaner and safer environment. It was the wealthy who first exhibited signs and symptoms of autoimmune disease.
THE HYGIENE HYPOTHESIS
Today we understand that we evolved with microbes and living too clean has consequences, a concept known as the hygiene hypothesis. Researchers note that people who live in squalor, greater exposure to pathogens and parasites, often enjoy a healthier immune function. People who live close to nature, on farms or ranches with animals, even people who live with pets tend to experience less autoimmune disease.
However, where you live isn’t the only factor that determines how well your immune system behaves. A whole slate of factors influence your microbial health before you have a chance to have a say in the matter. Pregnant women share their microbes with their babies throughout pregnancy and during vaginal deliveries, and in progressive hospitals despite necessary C-sections. These babies are swabbed with mom’s vaginal fluids as they emerge from the womb to give them the same microbial benefits of traditionally delivered babies. Breastfeeding and minimal exposure to antibiotics also help support a infant’s immune health.
What we eat continues to be the single most critical factor influencing gut health and diversity of healthy microbes living in our gut, and our immune function is large dependent on gut health. However, Americans increasingly rely on someone else to prepare their food and food service inherently means more ways to destroy the microbes. I anticipate an inherent conflict in what we consider safe to eat.
AT A CROSSROADS OF FOOD SAFETY
Today we sit at a crossroads. Most food safety efforts target pathogenic bacteria, with the far larger communities of healthful bacteria destroyed as collateral damage. Yet we are learning that in the long run, safe to eat may need to consider how we contribute healthy bacteria to our guts as as well.
Consider all the ways we inherently destroy or decrease the diversity of microbes in food today:
1. On the Farm, Glyphosate remains the most commonly used herbicide and it is patented as an antimicrobial agent. It is not used as an antimicrobial agent, but it functions as one. It is thought to compromise microbes and fungi integral to healthy soils, compromise the commensal (healthy and mutually beneficial) bacteria in animals who eat GMO crops treated with Glyphosate, and at this time we can only wonder about human gut health.
2. In Confined Agricultural Feeding Operations (CAFOS) animals are fattened in tight quarters eating an unnatural diet that compromises their liver function and immune systems. These animals are routinely given low dose antibiotics as a prophylactic agent to defend against disease, but the real bonus is faster growth and a fattier meat.
Feedlot antibiotics trigger a slew of problems including antibiotic resistance for those medications also used in humans. The highly controversial practice is getting plenty of attention these days from consumers, retailers, government regulatory agencies, and non-government agencies alike.
3. Food processing and manufacturing remains rife with risk to pass on food born pathogens. No wonder scrupulous companies come off as hyper-vigilant, bordering on the obsessive. Making people sick from your food is not good for business.
Anyone in the business of feeding the public from food manufacturers and food processors to brokers, retail stores and restaurants incorporates a myriad of ways to keep the bugs at bay. The consequence? Food safety protocols end up destroying all the bugs, both the good and the bad.
- Produce companies triple wash fresh bagged lettuce and other produce with chlorine
- We irradiate most herbs and spices as well as fresh meats, seafood, eggs, and fresh fruits and vegetables to eliminate pathogens
- Antimicrobial sprays are used to eliminate pathogens and enhance shelf life of fresh produce
- Antimicrobial soaps and other cleaning agents used on equipment destroy bacteria
- Cooking destroys healthful lactobacilli bacteria at temps greater than 110F
- Conventional meat and dairy products are exposed to prophylactic use of antibiotics that impact microbial diversity and contribute to antibiotic resistance
- Highly processed and heat treated foods minimize exposure to microbes
- Some food additives also compromise microbes or microbial function in the gut, including emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners.
Consumers purchasing conventionally harvested, processed, and prepared foods are mostly missing the microbes that could contribute to better gut health. Should we all be growing our own or is the answer in developing smaller, more sustainable local food chains?
LIVING WITH THE MICROBES
We are just beginning to appreciate the dynamics between what we eat, the health of our microbiome, our personal health and the health of the planet–and microbes influence everything. We need to be concerned about food safety but also need to learn how to live with with microbes, not merely eradicate them.
Inevitably we will need to tolerate the bugs. Microbes support a healthy gut, a healthy immune system, health people and a healthy planet and food safety sits in the middle of the conflict. Ultimately we will have to grapple with what it means to be “safe to eat”.