Earth Matters: Gut gastronomy: What you eat can harm you

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Lynn Capuano, President Terrapin Environmental Solutions Inc.

If you need another reason to reconsider opening that pre-prepared packaged meal and serving it to yourself or your family as breakfast, lunch, or dinner, here it is: bacteria in your gut.
The New York Times recently reported on new research suggesting that additives used to extend the shelf life and improve the texture of processed foods can negatively impact the trillions of bacteria living in our gut.

This can then lead to illness and even death.
The research indicates that a sugar called trehalose which is widely used to stabilize processed foods, improve texture and keep foods moist on the shelf is one of the problematic additives.

Trehalose is used in a range of foods from cookies to ground beef.

Once consumed, it feeds dangerous bacteria in our gut allowing that bad bacteria to overcome the good bacteria and cause illness and possibly death. In addition to helping bad bacteria get stronger, trehalose also enables the most toxic strains of that bad bacteria to become predominant.
There is a growing body of evidence that commonly used food additives like trehalose can transform our healthy microbial communities into unhealthy ones that can encourage the emergence of new pathogens and diseases like obesity, diabetes, and inflammatory bowel disease.

A healthy microbiome helps us get the most out of the wide range of food we eat in terms of calories and nourishment. If we push our microbiome to accept foods too divergent from what our bodies naturally seek, we end up with these negative effects.
Food additives allow gut microbes to cross the protective barrier between the microbes and the intestinal lining.

Some food additives, like polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose used in foods such as mayonnaise and ice cream, weaken the protective barrier and may cause production of proteins that inflame the gut and increase the tendency to obesity and diabetes. Maltodextrin, a food thickener, also seems to weaken the barrier and nourish a strain of E. coli linked to Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease. Sweeteners like sucralose and saccharin, though intended to pass right through our systems, may actually be digested by microbes in our colons and affect our glucose intolerance which can indicate diabetes.
This research raises some important questions about the food hospitals serve which is often highly processed and the use of additives in medicines. It also raises questions about choices we each make about the foods we eat.

While the people, animals, plants and soil around you have an impact on your gut microbiome as do the antibiotics you take and your own genetics, consumption of food additives is something you can more easily control.

Contrary to food additives, soluble fiber can strengthen the protective barrier in your intestines; so consider increasing the amount of soluble fiber in your diet and avoid processed foods. Keep your gut bacteria healthy and working for you.
The New York Times article reporting on this research is available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/06/opinion/sunday/germs-microbes-processed-foods.html. The article references some studies that are available at https://www.nature.com/articles/nature25178, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25731162, and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23251695.
The dangers of food additives to your health are not limited to your gut microbiome. There is a great deal of information available regarding the health dangers of various food additives.

Whether linked to cancer, hyperactivity or asthma just to name a few, the real concern about food additives is the lack of information regarding their health impact individually, cumulatively and collectively when consumed in everyday food products.

The Environmental Working Group maintains a guide to food additives that is a useful reference when deciding what may or may not be safe to eat – https://www.ewg.org/research/ewg-s-dirty-dozen-guide-food-additives#.W2s6SChKhPb. Focusing on natural, unprocessed foods is likely the healthiest choice for you and your family.

Adhere to the adage of shopping only the outer aisles at the supermarket, take advantage of your local farmer’s market and try your hand at home gardening.
I have been watching a lot of “Call the Midwife” on Netflix lately and I am reminded that there was a time not too long ago that people relied on eating what they could grow themselves to a large extent.

Even though we may have less space around our homes and in our homes, we can take advantage of modern gardening techniques that maximize food growth in small spaces and enjoy a homegrown apple, cucumber or many other items. That certainly seems like a better use of our space than a pesticide and fertilizer-laden lawn.
In the interest of a happy gut, and for all the other benefits of home gardening and eating whole foods, avoid processed foods and choose what comes to us naturally.

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