Saturday, February 1, 2014

Food Chemistry: Gut flora and food safety {Week 4}

There's no way you can be an active "foodist"/Paleo-lithic person without repeatedly seeing Kombucha bottles popping up in grocery stores all around. Before, you could only homebrew your Kombucha or buy them at local health food stores. Last week I was in safeway and they had an entire refrigerator section devoted to Kombucha. So what is this fizzy thing and why are some bottles labeled over 21?

According to "Food Renegade" who wrote an entire post about the health benefits of Kombucha, this drink originally came from China. Previously used as a health elixir this fermented drink may contain unstable amounts of alcohol. However, this is not the type of alcoholic drink you would drink with your over 21 friends as you watch The Bachelor. This fuzzy goodness has been around for 2,000 years and was once thought to act as a staple in preventative medicine by targeting cancer, arthritis etc. 

This drink is usually made at home for less than a dollar a gallon. I recently tried my first brew. It was just that... my first brew. It wasn't very good, but a nice attempt for your first try! I usually spring for the store-bought version in a glass bottle. Kombucha found in a store bought glass-bottle usually has ~ 2g of sugar, and a ton of enzymes, probiotics, nutrients and some yummy natural flavorings that can range anywhere from mint, watermelon, mango, ginger to a "green juice/wheat grass" flavor. 

The enzymes found in Kombucha are a direct result of the fermenting process which is made by using a "mother" or starter yeast, which in some high-quality Kombucha is bottled right with the drink. This "mother" also referred to as "SCOBY" (yeast) Contains bacteria-like enzymes for a variety of body functions including but not limited to, detoxing effects and joint protection. But the crucial benefit that I will spend the rest of the blog discussing is "gut health".

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So ever since Activia commercials have been appearing on TV everyone has become hyper-aware of nurturing their gut. But what does that even mean? Just like you would be nurturing your body with food, your child with breast milk, your dog with Purina puppy chow, you need to nurture your gut as well. The human digestive system stretches from your mouth all the way to your large intestine. But the primary location for both digestion and absorption of nutrients from food is the small intestine. Naturally, I use to think, "well the small intestine is within my body, does it need it's own source of nurturing?" The answer is ABSOLUTELY! 

The small intestine and the large intestine if lined up end to end stretch 5 feet. That's as tall as my mother! So after considering its size, now do you think it deserves its own nutrient system? In case you didn't already know, there are tiny microbes that live in your gut in order to help you digest things down. Maintaining the health and quantity of these microbes will further help in digesting the food you put into your body. These microbes also aid in protecting your gut, if you accidently ingest toxins in your food. It is reported that there are ten times more bacteria cells living in your body that regular cells. Did I convince you that your gut needs nutrients yet?

Well, if I haven't done it yet, lets talk a little about food safety and how every time you eat something you rely on your gut flora to keep you at bay. Even us Paleo-people who swear against all processed everything, we still run the same risk every time we ingest food products. Safety of food can be quantified by looking at toxicants. A toxicant is a substance that goes haywire on biologic mechanisms when ingested at high levels and can be harmful to the host body. Toxicants can arise from food borne issues, biohazards in our foods, ingredient contamination, inappropriate cooking time or temperature, mold, pesticide residue, harmful additives, pollutants, harmful microbes, environmental toxins etc. 
Many of us have experience the terrible symptoms of food-poisoning and swear to never return to that $.99 buffet, ever again! This type of toxicant consumption is referred to as acute. An acute exposure to a toxicant which causes you to feel bloated, gassy, constipated, etc. is categorized as an one-time exposure. You accidently ingested a toxin which caused you to feel very sick for a day and then you stopped ingesting that food ever again. However, sometimes, with the case of food additives we can be chronically deleterious. Meaning, we are constantly consuming this toxicant. It is possible that you may just be oblivious to the toxicant or that it "hasn't affected you yet". It is projected that 1 in 6 are likely to suffer a food born illness in 2014... great!

It's not just the discomfort of this illness that makes it miserable, it also costs a lot of money. You think it doesn't, you just start puking and you should be fine! No. There are incidents where it can bring about medical costs, lost of productivity to the producer, can cause the sick to be physically and mentally disturbed and in the worst of all cases can cause legal issues. In class we learned that the estimated losses for the USA due to foodborne illness per year is $6.5-35 billion. Now it makes sense that 16,000-20,000 outbreaks are reported every year. Imagine if we counted all the ones that were not reported. We'd have soooo many! The best part is, almost half of these outbreaks are have no identified source. So it could be something you ate that caused you to be sick and now people after you can be eating it too, but since we didn't know what it was to make you sick we can't stop it. So more and more people are getting sick until it becomes identified. There are two main types of foodborne illness (and their origins are endless) 1) infection and 2) intoxication. Infection is when you eat something contaminated with bacteria which causes the bacteria in your gut to go bad and to multiply into bad bacteria, leading to illness. Intoxication is different, the bacteria is growing in the food first. Then upon digestion, you also digest the harmful residue of bacteria growth and illness occurs.

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When I was sitting in class and my professor was talking about the industries the US employs to help keep our food safe to consume (FDA, CDC etc.) it got my brain juices thinking. Is it weird that I am trusting the safety of my body and health to a company who could miss something in the foods I am putting in my body? Maybe that's just my trust-issues talking here, but it just sounds so crazy to me. I know the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) and the CDC (Center for Disease Control) pass many laws, like the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Art law of 1938, to protect consumers as best they can. It was also interesting to learn that the FDA/CDA have a "ranking" for toxicants they care most about and ones that they are not as concerned over. Don't get me wrong, they are concerned with all facets of health and safety, but put more emphasis on some hazards versus others. The ranking is as follows: Food additives--> pesticide residue (plants)--> natural toxicants (poison)--> environmental issues (smog/bad soil)-->nutritional deficits--> microbes.These organizations work together to make sure that food is safe, wholesome and provided at fair value. 

You've all been to Starbucks, right? Come on... no lying! Someone has definitely forced you into a strawberry frappuccino or faux-caramel macchiato (as I call them). The picture above is actually the original starbucks in Seattle, WA. I went there this past weekend to visit an 'ol friend and couldn't help myself! Yes- I do like the mom & pop coffee shops (i'm about to start my Barista adventure in one) but Starbucks is thee chain of all chains. Okay, so why is this girl bringing up Starbucks in a food safety post. I bring up Starbucks because of their use of acrylamide, a known cancer-causing agent. They even have a Prop 65 warning posted at their creamery bar. 
  I mention this Prop 65 warning because the FDA regulates substances such as acrylamide according to "The Delaney clause" which prohibits the presence of carcinogenic cancer-causing substances in foods. So does this mean that every Starbucks should therefore be closed and prohibited from serving food? Well- I guess not. But Prop 65 does require every california business with cancer causing agents to provide a list of these chemicals to their consumers. Currently, however, the FDA has not given the termination warning for acrylamide. This Prop 65 warning is a direct result of the California office of Environmental Hazards. I have to give starbucks a little leeway here, it's not like they go out of their way to make products with cancer causing agents inside. Acrylamide is a result of processes starbucks employees, such as the roasting/frying/baking at high temperatures.

The fact that the FDA has not advised against this cancer causing agent, tells me a couple things. Either, there is not enough evidence to prove that this agent causes cancer or that acrylamide in Starbucks products is present in "tolerable amounts". For every toxicant, chemical, nutrient, etc. there is a limit to how much or how little the food item must present. These are referred to as the "legal levels of adulterants in food". If a chemical is an absolute, avoidable toxic substance, the tolerance level would be set to 0. The level allowed is determined by finding the maximum amount of a substance that is still deemed harmless. If a food product contains chemicals past their tolerable limit, they are deemed unsafe by the FDA and therefore not approved for consumption. 

Alright then, I guess this makes me a little more trusting of the FDA. In a past class, I learned that when trying to pass a new food product the FDA enlists a trusted board of reviewers and the producer has to go through many many steps in order to become approved. The board created by the FDA is made up of experts in the field (of that particular product) and is comprised of unbiased, unrelated members. So, you won't have the CEO of Kraft trying to pass the new cheddar cheese slices. So hats off to you FDA, you are slowly but surely breaking this girls' trust issue wall. 

Okay so back to gut flora, say for example you do accidently ingest a toxicant in acute amounts, or you eat a contaminated piece of poultry (containing Salmonella), what is your body to do. Basically, your gut bacteria, also referred to as "warriors" in this case, will come to battle. They will attack and attack and attack that "invader" until it is gone. This is why you get so sick. The gut warriors are there to keep your immune system happy and normal. But if they are so busy fighting in battle, they can get killed off and your immune system becomes compromised, hence the sickness following food poisoning. A quick way to keep these warriors happy and increase the number of fighters on your side is through the consumption of probiotics. Imagine you and your two friends against a very skilled army  of 2,000— who would win? Now imagine, you have been recruiting two people every single day for a year  and now you have 730 people against 2000 instead of the ratio before. The battle would be more fair now.  Think of probiotics as the recruitment of more soldiers for your gut battle.

Salmonella is not the only foodborne illness out there (duh!) but it is common in poultry, sprouts, GI tract of birds, reptiles, etc. This illness causes initial vomiting and nausea. Salmonella is what I like to call a "slow-killer". Symptoms do not appear until 8-72 hours after infection. This makes it very hard to detect the origin of the illness. Escherichia coli (e.coli) is a different type of toxin and is actually the first identified human pathogen back in 1982. When you think e.coli you should think animals. Especially, ruminants, because e.coli is housed in their guts. My grandma use to yell at us kids when we were younger and would love to order medium-rare burgers. She's scream in a thick middle-eastern accident, "you die from e. coli, over a burger!" Yes, that was her broken-English trying to convince me that I would get e.coli from my burger. This is quite possible (although, thankfully has not happened to me). E.coli can surface itself via undercooked meat, but also in things such as salami, lettuce/spinach. Wait, lettuce/spinach are vegetables, they do not come from ruminants. Oh but wait, boy oh boy can e.coli travel. It grows little feet and moves from fecal matter of ruminants into plants of lettuce/spinach. —yummy, right?

Back to the fermented goodness of Kombucha. Kombucha along with kimchi, sauerkraut aid the GI tract via the use of bacteria. As stated above, this is the act of adding more warriors to your already growing number. So its important to be eating fermented (from bacteria/yeast) products to help out your flora. Then if you are to accidentally ingest a toxin, you have a higher number of fighters on your side and you can make it through the battle with nothing but a scratch.

Also, try to not digest toxins, duh! Wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly, and cook,I repeat, cook your food! People commonly ask me if I follow the "raw-meat" diet because I call myself Paleo/primal. Yeah... no thanks. I cook my food at very high temperatures (especially meats), but do like to keep my vegetables washed and raw (in case you must know). Plus, I am probably the most OCD person when it comes to kitchen cleanliness. Wash your stinkin hands people! Wash all instruments you use, and do not cross-contaminate. For example, if you are using tongs to flip your raw chicken so the raw side can cook... that tong is officially dirty. WASH IT. You do not want to use that tong you just flipped a raw chicken with to then serve your cooked chicken. See... didn't think about that before now did we? Also, whoever said you should let your food come down to room temperature on the counter before putting it in your refridgerator is just down-right a cheap-o. Their argument is probably that it uses less energy on the refridgerator when the food comes in "warm"/room temp as opposed to piping hot from the stove. Yeah- no. That person also wanted you to get sick. When you are done cooking... pop that sucker in the fridge. Leave it uncovered to get the temp down as fast as possible and then cover it up as you please. Especially meats! Its just amazing that people firmly believe otherwise.. I mean go for it... e.coli wants you too!

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So talk to me, my Paleo-people, what is your take on Kombucha? What's your favorite brand? How hard is it to make at home


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