Is our food too clean?

Image New York Times June 2012We are what we don’t eat?
In a recent New York Times article, Jeff D. Leach suggests that our increasing distance from the soil in which our food grows may be behind not only increasing rates of allergies and food sensitivities, but perhaps also increases in chronic diseases and in the severity of effects we experience from food born illnesses.  Mr. Leach, who is a science and archaeology writer and the founder of the Human Food Project, says the solution to these problems could be as simple as getting to know some old friends we have lost touch with over time:  the micro organisms that once covered our food.

Well, how did I get here?
According to Leach, the human body’s immune system developed to be able to cope with external bacteria.  One important element of this development was routine exposure to micro organisms,  both potentially pathogenic and benign, that helped establish a “normal background level” of bacteria in the body.  This normal level was a way of saying to the immune system “Hey these bacteria are foreign but not really harmful so don’t freak out when you see them”…in other words, it  helps keep the immune system from over reacting to the presence of new bacteria.

However, the bar of this “normal background level” has been significantly lowered by the modern fetish for clean, processed food and sanitizing products.  As a consequence, when the immune system does come in contact with new bacteria, it’s reaction can be so severe that it basically constitutes an illness itself.  And increasingly, evidence seems to indicate that this effect is at the root of the rising incidence and severity of allergic reactions, autoimmune disorders, and diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and MS.  Leach even suggests that the recent rash of very severe food-born illness cases  may be due to a collective American gut that is too poor in background bacteria.  When new pathogens are introduced via food, they find a wide open field in which to grow.

Healing our collective gut
According to Leach, the solution to this problem may be as close as our local farmer’s market.  He sites fresh, non processed, organic farm products as one of the closest sources of the micro organisms to which our bodies need  exposure in order to reestablish a “normal background level” in our gut.   Just in case you needed another reason to visit the farmer’s market.



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