The Germs That Love Diet Soda is an excellent article in the New York Times by science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff about the potential dangers associated with consuming processed foods. While it cannot be emphasized enough that eating organic, fresh, fiber rich, low fat and low sugary foods is good for our health, caution is necessary when extrapolating from recent microbiome research performed largely in mice to human health. Some reflections:
- Findings obtained in experimental rodent models generally living in artificial living conditions and eating unnatural food are often not translatable to humans. So unless confirmed in well controlled human studies, avoid premature conclusions from such studies for your own health.
- Not all “processed” food are the same. Cooking, fermenting, baking food all involve the processing of raw materials to increase flavor or digestibility. There is nothing wrong with eating your fermented milk products, cheese, pickled olives or a good glass of wine. On the other hand the term processed food with negative implications should be reserved for adding artificial sweeteners, high amounts of fructose, high amounts of vital gluten, chemical preservatives, food colors and other substances to food. While our gut microbes with their millions of genes are pretty good at breaking down such chemicals which they have never been exposed to in evolution, so called xenobiotics, evolution hasn’t foreseen the potentially harmful effects of these breakdown products, and the food safety testing by the FDA is based on acute toxicology essays, and not on the long-term effects such chemicals may have on our bodies.
- The problem with the modern western diet that it not only contains many of these bad purposefully added substances, but a whole range of other “hidden” chemicals associated with modern food production and environmental toxins. This is particular the case with the constant stream of low dose antibiotics from meat and plant products (in addition to the overprescribed, and unnecessary antibiotics for presumed bacterial infections), and residues of pesticides (microbes are masters in metabolizing the active ingredient of glyphosate, the weed killer better known as round up into a potentially toxic chemical for our bodies.
Despite these caveats, the evolving microbiome science is confirming what people and cultures around the world have either intuitively practiced or consciously pursued for centuries: the benefits of a largely plant based diet, limited intake of sugary and high fat foods, grown without the addition of chemicals, and consumed in modest amounts.
For a more in-depth exploration of topics related to the microbiome, read The Mind Gut Connection.