Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bacterial Overload

Recently the CC went to one of those outdoor street fairs where there was a pickle stand. They were also selling some of the pickled juice blended with tomatoes as a "Bloody Mary Mix". The vendors kept apologizing and warning clients who wanted to buy it that it was not pasteurized.

And the CC was completely nonplussed, "So it has come to this?"

It doesn't need to be pasteurized!

There is a fundamental lack of understanding by people who work in food about our relationship with other bio-agents and particularly the organisms that we are deeply symbiotic with namely bacteria.

At this point in time, advertising agencies have basically convinced consumers that bacteria are "evil" but nothing could be further from the truth.

The standard mechanism of cultivating bacteria in the lab is creating something called a "culture". Basically, a swab of bacteria are grown on a substrate and then examined under a microscope. Based on this, it was estimated that something like 1% of a human mass was actually bacteria. Little did people know how wrong this estimate turned out to be.

In the early part of the 21st century, the price of DNA sequencers fell precipitously. What used to be an expensive tool became dirt cheap. Scientists had the entirely brilliant idea of not measuring bacteria by mass but by what percentage of DNA of our body was made up of bacteria. Turns out the answer is between 90-99%.

Remember the two estimates are of different things. One is by weight and the other is by percentage of DNA that is non-human. They are different things but the latter estimate is clearly the more important.

To put it differently, we humans exist for the benefit of the bacteria not the other way around. Of course, we are extraordinarily symbiotic with them. We provide them the food and they provide us both protection by repelling all the "bad bacteria" and do significant portions of body work for us.

In fact, the bacteria on your left and right hands are completely different.

So why did the earlier scientists get it so wrong? How can the estimates be so off?

You should be able to guess the answer. Not every bacteria can grow in the "culture". In fact, they can only survive in that localized environment inside the body that they have adapted to.

The answer is even more complex. There's no such thing as "good" or "bad" bacteria. It's contextual. You move the "good" bacteria from the right spot where they are supposed to be into the wrong spot and they will become "bad" bacteria. The context is completely important.

The bacteria that we are the most symbiotic with is a family called lactobacillus. Every time, you eat yogurt, eat or drink miso, eat pickles, cheese, kimchi, drink beer or wine, you are basically consuming them in vast quantities. They do the fermentation for us, and in turn, they repel other harmful bacteria for us. We are completely reliant on them.

So now maybe you can guess why the pickled juice blended with tomatoes did not need to be pasteurized?

The lactobacilli would repel any invader which there are not that many of to start with because of the acidity of the environment. The lactobacilli are the rare family that has adapted to the acidic environment thanks to their symbiosis with us.

Fermented foods have a long history of being considered "good for you". It was just an empirical observation over large swathes of human history in vastly different regions and contexts but they all came to the same conclusion.

Only in the 21st century is science able to actually dissect how all these various extraordinarily-complex mechanisms actually work.

But the CC's point is a lot larger. How have we gotten to a point where the most basic food interaction is fraught with anxiety? The answer is that Madison Ave. has made you paranoid.

The CC never relies on the expiration dates for milk. Just smell it. It's pretty obvious. Sometimes it will go bad before the expiration date!

The same goes for fermentation and fermented products. They work in a complex way and made correctly will last forever. Experienced picklers never throw out the juice. They use a cup of it to start off the next batch because it has the complex blend of bacteria all ready to give the next batch the right start.

Pickling is one of the greatest achievements in food technology. Just remember that for most of human history, humans were food deprived. Our modern calorie-rich environment is an extraordinarily recent development barely 50 years old. Pickling was the trick that allowed humans to store food for the winter. It also gave variety and complexity to their diet and the symbiotic relationship with the bacteria made for healthier humans.

The CC hopes that this explanation convinces people not to think of bacteria as "evil" but our necessary partners in the game of life. We need them; they need us. We can't actually function without them.

So the next time you're at the fair eating a pickle-on-a-stick, you should not think to yourself "Ooh! crunchy cucumber", you should really be thinking "Ooh! Tons of bacteria with a side helping of crunchy cucumber!"

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