Even the most fervent germaphobes among us will agree that not all bacteria are worthy of a glob of Purell. Still, just the word “bacteria” is enough to bring a grimace to someone’s face. And why not? Popular culture has made countless movies about worlds where tiny microbes exterminate humans, and the list of infamous bacteria is formidable — tuberculosis, salmonella and Clostridium, to name a few. But behind the fear and disease, there’s a duality. Bacteria sicken yet protect our bodies. They can topple civilizations but can nourish our food. We actively try to avoid them, yet microbes permeate every inch of the world. Bacteria get a bad rap, but despite common misconception, they’re not the villains we’ve made them out to be.
Every day, we walk around with 1.5 trillion bacteria on our skin and 100 trillion in our gut. For reference, there are about 30 trillion cells in our body. By that logic, it’s almost as if we’re more bacteria than human. If we think of ourselves as bacterial colonies, we have to ask how to sustain the members of the colony. Importantly, the flora that we have in our gut are directly related to the food we eat. In turn, the flora regulate our immune systems, mental health and digestive health. Quite literally, these bacteria help us fight other bacteria. A key to understanding how we can use these microbes and enrich our own microbiomes lies in fermented foods: food that has been made with live bacteria. Not to be confused with spoiled foods, fermented foods are preserved by bacteria that have used the food’s nutrients to sustain themselves. Although, sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart just by smell.
While they may not be staples in the American diet, we can find fermented foods across cultures and throughout history. Even before our favorite fermented beverage, alcohol, was first created around 7000 B.C. in China, people would ferment camel, sheep and goat milk as a means of preserving dairy in the Middle East. Egyptians and Europeans teamed up with bacteria to produce yogurt, cheese and beer. While Europe exported sauerkraut and pickles, Asia produced fish paste, tempeh, soy sauce, kimchi and miso. The heat of North Africa provided an ideal environment for fermenting camel milk to yogurt, sustaining desert travelers. Today, we can find kombucha, a drink from ancient China, on the shelves of most grocery stores.
Fermented foods have remained a staple throughout history for good reason. The bacteria we ingest through food become part of our microbiomes, delivering several health benefits. A recent Stanford study revealed that a diet rich in fermented foods has immune benefits, reducing inflammation associated with disease and stress. What’s even more interesting is that fiber, the dietary component we’ve all been taught is incredibly important for healthy digestions, is not as effective in balancing and promoting our microbiome health compared to fermented foods. The old adage rings true in the case of bacteria: You are what you eat, and eating more microbes helps those inside of you flourish.
For those wanting to dip their toes into the world of fermented foods, the Ithaca Wegmans has a corner packed with these fermented goodies, and kombucha can easily be found around campus. And for those who are more adventurous, it’s pretty easy to ferment your own vegetables. Cucumbers, carrots, onions, asparagus, tomatoes and even watermelon are great for pickling.
Our natural aversion to bacteria is understandable and, in many cases, rightful, but our bodies require these microbes. Our relationship to bacteria is as old as our species, and we are finally beginning to understand that connection. In the coming years, we’ll have more knowledge on how to tailor our diets to enrich our microbiomes and a deeper understanding of the role fermented foods have in supporting health. So next time you eat a pickle or sip a beer, don’t forget the little organisms that made it for you.
Peter Kaplinsky is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]