You are what you eat

Bread has developed from its humble beginnings as the staff of life to a pawn in the game of food politics. Laced with chemicals to speed up the manufacturing process and keep the bread ‘fresh’, it’s far removed from the nutritional powerhouse our ancestors enjoyed. 

More and more people worry about climate change and poor health, often turning to organic practices and products to ease their minds and their symptoms. The benefits of more natural foods, such as sourdough bread, are becoming more readily accepted, but what are these benefits, and how does the food we eat affect our health? 

My sister Inga runs a biodynamic farm in Northern Germany.

The effect of chemicals on the body was an eye opener when I was studying microbiology and for my sister Inga, it gave her career direction. Interested in farming from a young age, as a teenager Inga spent a year living on a  farm in remote Saskatchewan, Canada – when she came back to Germany she started an apprenticeship in organic farming. She continued her studies, graduating at the age of 25 as a farm technician specialising in organic farming, which is similar to a masters’ level qualification in New Zealand. Inga and her husband Ernst – who grew up in one of the first biodynamic farming communes in Germany – now run an organic farm in Germany, and in my next post I’ll tell you how their way of farming is sensible, sustainable and able to be replicated around the world. 

We really are what we eat. Our bodies are made up of the components of the food we have eaten, our metabolism breaking food down into building blocks then modifying them to make new proteins, fats and carbohydrates. These are then used to make new amino acids, enzymes, proteins, cell vesicles, mitochondrial components, cell walls, neurotransmitters, blood cells, bones, and organs.  And along with the good stuff we absorb from our food, traces of any chemicals used in the growing and processing of our food also end up in our body. Since our body has not evolved to deal with these chemicals, they can build up and affect us in many ways. When stored in fatty tissue they can enhance the chances of certain cancers and they also interact with the cells of the immune system and with our neurotransmitters – the messenger molecules that the brain uses to control and regulate all our body functions.  Their exact effects are inherently difficult to study in situ (meaning in the body itself), as there are so many variables and different components to consider. Meaningful studies and data on the effects of these many chemicals are therefore extremely rare and difficult to come by. So what dowe know? Studies which have looked at the prevalence of allergies, food intolerance, mental health disorders, and cancers have all shown strong correlations between the rate of exposure to food chemicals and the rate of these various disorders and illnesses.

We are super-organisms of human and microbial cells
We exist in a delicate host : microbe equilibrium (Source: Dr. Emma Allen-Vercoe, University of Guelph, Canada)

Until recently the role of the gut and specifically the role of the colonies of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in the large intestine – the part at the end of our gut –  have been largely ignored when it comes to health and nutrition. These microbes are referred to as your ‘microbiome’ and are as unique as you are. More recent scientific studies show that your microbiome has an important role in regulating your immunity, crowding out pathogens, helping you get energy from the food you eat and improving intestinal function. It’s also becoming clear that there’s more interaction between us and the bacteria in our gut than previously thought. 

Why does this matter? The chemicals in our food, even if they don’t affect us immediately, affect our microbiome and can lead to an imbalance of the types of good bacteria we have. Take for example preservatives in food – they are added specifically to prevent or slow down the growth of bacteria. They then affect the microbiome by killing certain types of gut microbes while allowing those microbes that are resistant to that preservative’s specific effects to flourish. Eating a whole cocktail of food chemicals, combined with antibacterial soaps, household sprays, and the occasional dose of antibiotics has profound effects on your microbiome. Wiping out the good bacteria can lead to the wrong kind of bacteria coming to dominate your microbiome. The result can be that you can feel unwell – a number of diseases and digestive disorders like allergies and Irritable Bowel Syndrome have been linked to an imbalance of the bacterial communities living within us. 

(Source: Dr. Emma Allen-Vercoe, University of Guelph, Canada)

But it’s not only gastro-intestinal disorders that can stem from an imbalance of the gut microbiome. People who are affected by mood disorders like anxiety and depression and even far more serious mental and psychological disorders like autism and ADHD have been shown to be harbouring a vastly different microbiome. Fermented foods such as organic sourdough are therefore some of the best things you can eat to promote the growth of the good bacteria. Organic wholemeal sourdough contains more fibre and minerals that reach the large intestine than any other food and because it doesn’t have chemical residues, it doesn’t upset the delicate balance that makes up our microbiome.

Ingredients of white supermarket bread. My general rule is, if it’s got numbers or you can’t easily pronounce the words, it’s probably not food)

So with its long list of ingredients, many of which carry chemical residue from either the agricultural or manufacturing processes, commercial white bread doesn’t seem like a very good option, does it? Perhaps it’s time to try a food that has been in existence for thousands of years, has fuelled the growth of civilisation and has the ability to fuel you too – organic, wholegrain sourdough bread really is the staff of life.

More information on the microbiome and its effects on human health

 The long history of the loaf

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