As I have said previously, I read labels obsessively in an attempt to keep the American food industry’s ubiquitous chemicals out of my body. Some of the fillers, emulsifiers, flavorings, sweeteners, extenders, enhancers and other artificial garbage that food companies put into their products causes immediate and noticeable changes in my body when I accidentally consume them.
Not a few people scoff at this, claiming that FDA-approved substances are safe to eat or that I’m exaggerating the consequences. Our son, for example, tells me that monosodium glutamate (MSG) is perfectly safe. Funny thing, but MSG makes the arthritis in my hands hurt (a lot) and gives me a migraine headache. Not so benign, then.
Processed Foods / Unnatural Reactions
It came as no surprise, therefore, to learn that processed foods with a lot of unnatural ingredients have a negative effect on our microbiomes. These are the trillions of beneficial bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in the gut of every human being. When they have a bad impact on our gut, they affect us adversely as well.
In “The Germs That Love Diet Soda,” Moises Velasquez-Manoff tells us that, “These substances may selectively feed the more dangerous members of our microbial communities, causing illness and even death.”
That’s definitely not benign. In this New York Times article, the author discusses a study conducted by Robert Britton, a microbiologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, noting:
“His research adds to a growing body of evidence indicating that common food additives can push our microbial communities in unhealthy directions, not only potentially aiding the emergence of new pathogens, but also encouraging diseases like obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.”
Problematical Sugars and Amino Acids
Mr. Velasquez-Manoff fingers a number of sugars and amino acids including:
- Trehalose, a naturally occurring sugar that is now manufactured, for feeding a serious gut infection called clostridium difficile, or C. diff.. It has become virulent and can be fatal.
- The common emulsifiers polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose for eroding the mucus barrier that protects the intestinal lining from harmful microbes. They may produce proteins that inflame the gut.
- Maltodextrin, a food thickener that, “seems to both thin the mucus barrier in mice and nourish a strain of E. coli linked to Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease.”
- Artificial sweeteners like sucralose and saccharin, that can lead to glucose intolerance, a marker of impending diabetes.
The article is well worth reading in its entirety as it explains may complex interactions in laymen’s terms that we all can understand.
Food Is Different in Europe
When my husband and I have visited Europe on Viking River Cruises or with Overseas Adventure Travel, we notice that we feel better after about a week. We feel stronger, more energetic and alert. We think that’s because the European countries don’t allow these chemical compounds and artificially produced ingredients in their food. Even their unprocessed foods taste cleaner and healthier because the animals aren’t dosed with antibiotics and growth hormones and the grains are not genetically modified. (The Viking Cruise chefs are also superb, but that’s another whole post.)
While one thing may not, of itself, cause problems, the combined impact of many polysyllabic chemicals consumed over time can hit you in the gut—literally.
Science is just beginning to unlock the multiple interactions of the microbiome that lives inside all of us. As they do, scientists find that a strong and diversified microbiome is more important to our overall health and longevity than anyone expected. Microbial studies are now underway on the skin, vagina, blood, and gastrointestinal tract.
Change Your Diet to Nurture Your Microbiome
Experts are beginning to recommend ways to nurture healthy gut micro-organisms. These include replacing a diet heavily based on meat, carbohydrates and processed foods with one that is based on plants: vegetables and fruits. I’m not quite there yet, although we eat a lot of vegetables and fruit.
We can ease into it, though, by doing these four things:
- Eat as much natural food as possible. Shop in the produce department, get fresh meat and fish, consume organic milk and eggs if you can afford them.
- Drop as many processed foods as possible from your diet. Anything in a box or a can is likely to include any number of artificial ingredients.
- Read labels. Not just the front of the box or can, where it makes meaningless claims like “All Natural.” Turn the package around and read the ingredients on the back.
- If the ingredients include words you don’t understand and can’t pronounce, put it back.
Canned Soups Are Not All Alike
My big bugaboo is canned soup. I like to make soup but that usually produces more than the two of us can eat. It’s easier to open a can and eat it for lunch with half a sandwich or a salad. Just for comparison, here are the ingredients for three brands of Chicken Noodle Soup. I have highlighted the artificial ingredients in red.
- Progresso Light Chicken Noodle
Chicken Broth, Carrots, Cooked White Chicken Meat, Egg Noodle (wheat flour, semolina wheat, egg*), Celery. CONTAINS less than 2% of: Water, Salt, Corn Protein (hydrolyzed), Chicken Fat, Egg White*, Xanthan Gum, Carrot Puree, Modified Food Starch, Potassium Chloride, Onion Powder, Sugar, Soy Protein Isolate, Maltodextrin, Yeast Extract, Sodium Phosphate, Garlic Powder, Chives*, Parsley*, Natural Flavor, Spice, Egg Yolk*, Beta Carotene (color).
- Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup
Chicken Stock, Enriched Egg Noodles (Wheat Flour, Eggs, Egg Whites, Niacin, Ferrous Sulfate, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Chicken Meat, Contains Less Than 2% Of: Salt, Vegetable Oil, Potato Starch, Chicken Fat, Monosodium Glutamate, Water, Dehydrated Mechanically Separated Chicken, Dehydrated Onions, Modified Food Starch, Yeast Extract, Soy Protein Isolate, Sodium Phosphate, Flavoring, Dehydrated Garlic, Beta Carotene For Color, Dehydrated Chicken.
Chicken Stock, Chicken Meat, Great Northern Beans, Egg Noodles With Quinoa Flour (Wheat Flour, Egg Whites, Eggs, Quinoa Flour), Diced Tomatoes In Tomato Juice, Carrots, Celery, Fennel, Water, Onions, Tomato Puree (Water, Tomato Paste), Potato Starch, Salt, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Carrageenan, Parsley*, Sage Extract.
Guess which one I buy. My microbiome and I both enjoy it.
Love Your Gut and It Will Love You
Love your microbiome. You might not ever meet the little critters that inhabit it—or want to—but they keep you healthy. Treat them well by eating good, natural food. Now we know that the processed stuff really can kill us. And knowing is half the battle.