Are we too germophobic?
Our food and environment: Are they too clean?
Just recently, in the United States there have been huge recalls of millions of gallons of ice cream, as well as several tonnes of hummus, pine nuts, frozen vegetables and various meat products. You might think that the North American food supply is in a terrible mess and causing drastic amounts of food poisoning. The truth is that the North American food supply system is the safest in the entire world.
Although we are continually improving processing methods and quality controls, the number of cases of food-borne illness has remained extremely high since the 1990’s, as the incidence of people getting sick from assorted pathogens keeps increasing. We may have reached the point of diminishing returns in food safety. Is it possible that are food is too clean?
Industrial food sanitation practices, along with home cooks’ antibacterial veggie washes, chlorine bleach kitchen and bathroom cleaners and sterilization cycle dish washers kill off so-called good bacteria naturally found in foods that bolster our health. As we eliminate bad or pathogenic bacteria we reduce our exposure to the small doses of these pathogens that could inoculate us against intestinal illnesses.
I was never afraid to pick up dirt that fell on the floor, even when eating outdoors. I used to joke that I was testing my immune system. The reality was that I was putting my immune system to work and keeping it in shape.
The “too clean” food theory stems from a new theory about modern hygiene.
It postulates that our modern germaphobic ways may be making us sick by harming our normal flora which is comprised of all the microscopic beasties, bacteria, viruses, fungi, mites, etc., that live in our bodies.
Research so far has focussed primarily on the detrimental effects of caesarian births and not breast feeding, which may inhibit the formation of a healthy and robust microbiome. Also the use of antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizers and overuse of antibiotics, prescribed and in our food supply, which diminish the microbiome once it is established.
This results in an immune system that eventually gets bored, spoiling for a fight and apt to react to harmless substances and even attack the body’s own tissues. This may explain the increasing incidence of allergies and autoimmune disorders such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases.
There is also the possibility that a diminished microbiome disrupts hormones that regulate hunger, which can cause obesity and metabolic disorders.
In the case of food-borne illness, the fact is that having fewer good bacteria in your gut means there is less competition to prevent the colonization of bad bacteria and other microbes, leading to more frequent and severe bouts of illness.
Also, your underutilized immune system may lose its ability to discriminate between good and bad invaders, so it may cause your defenses to get confused and start attacking healthy foods such as gluten and lactose or it may do nothing at all.
We try and counter this activity by making probiotics part of our daily regimen of supplements to prevent the likelihood of gastrointestinal infection. However, would it be appropriate to start dosing ourselves with dangerous pathogens such as salmonella or listeria as a preventative?
There has actually been some research in this area. Scientists at Texas Tech University in Lubbock have found that guinea pigs fed less virulent strains of listeria are less likely to get sick or die when later fed a more pathogenic strain. Also if you have ever visited Mexico, The Dominican Republic, India or any third world country, you find that the locals don’t get sick from foods that cause tourists to spend days on the toilet. Their immune systems are totally prepared to fend off the organisms that make us so sick.
Maybe we would be better off if the chicken inspectors eased up on the salmonella inspections; we ate recalled ice cream sandwiches and didn’t rinse our produce. This might be a little too drastic because we should really concentrate on being more selective at eradicating microbes more selectively.
Most of the food-borne diseases, the serious ones that make it into the news, like listeria, salmonella, E.coli, cryptosporidium and campylobacter are mainly diseases of people with compromised immune systems and that is a very significant number because of our ageing population.
This includes most people over 70, young children, pregnant women, people with H.I.V., cancer patients, organ recipients and anyone who has been prescribed a lot of antibiotics.
The three people who died last month after eating listeria-laced Blue Bell ice cream were all inpatients at a hospital in Wichita, Kansas. This prompted a recall of all the stock of ice cream all over the United States.
The fact is that that millions of people who ate the remaining tubs of ice cream included in the recall did not have so much as a stomach cramp. Research shows that listeria is commonly found in dirt and in households, particularly in rural communities, and most people who come in contact with it show no symptoms at all. I can only conclude that most of the people who ate the listeria-laced ice-cream and did not get sick came from dirty households.
In order to actually get sick, not only do you have to have a large amount of the pathogen present, but you must also have a compromised immune system. I have eaten foods in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, such as sushi or medium –rare steaks that may have dropped briefly on the floor (invoking the five-second rule) and never got sick. I have eaten raw oysters, steak tartar and salmon tartar without incident. That to me is a sign of a healthy immune system.
That does not mean you should do the same because age, illness, too many antibiotics, stress or even too clean a diet could put you at major risk for microbial illnesses.
At the present time, the Human Microbiome Project and Earth Microbiome Project are using advanced methods to identify all the microbes living on and within us, as well as in the soil and also in foods, to see how these invisible organisms interact to either promote or inhibit disease.
So if you are having a back-yard barbeque and your hamburger drops on the patio, invoke the five second rule and pick it up. You may be boosting your immune system.