Bacteria, our immune system, and food-borne illness


Finding the fine line between over-sterilization of the food supply, building our immune systems by eating raw foods, and avoiding food-borne illness.

For the last two weeks Canadians have been unable to avoid the daily barrage of news about the Listeria bacterium outbreak from packaged deli meats manufactured at the Maple Leaf Food Plant in Ontario, and then distributed throughout the country under various brand names like Schneiders, Shopsys, and Hickory Farms. Deli meats, hot dogs, and sandwiches have been pulled from store shelves across the country, and eight people thus far have died. For the most part, listeriosis is not a problem for children and adults that are healthy and have a good immune system. Pregnant women however, are particularly susceptible and should be careful to avoid foods that may be contaminated. Because Listeriosis can be troublesome for infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems , questions have been rightly raised as to why hospitals and nursing homes which tend to house that population, would regularly feed packaged meats to their patients. (Feel free to read my previous hospital food rants here and here.)

Packaged meats may be a convenience, but they do not provide the nourishment unprocessed meat from animals eating their natural diet does, and not only are they risky with respect to food-borne illness, but they are also linked to cancer due to the preservatives, colourings and flavourings added to them. I don’t think processed meat should be part of a healthy diet at all. But, that is not what I wanted to write about today.

After a food-borne illness outbreak, there is always talk about what can be done to prevent the problem from occurring again – a worthwhile conversation in my opinion. But the talk always turns to what can be done to kill more bacteria, and I never hear talk about what can be done to improve the immune systems of the people. Even Louis Pasteur, who discovered that heating foods kills bacteria, stated that the problem is not the germ, but the terrain. So the result is more food irradiation, more food pasteurization, and chemical methods of food sterilization, which not only kills the bad bacteria in the food, but also the good bacteria which is vital to our health, the live enzymes, and many of the vitamins in the food making it less nutritious, further compromising the health of the population, making us more susceptible to food-borne illness in the future. Over-sterilization of our food supply is becoming a more and more serious health threat in my opinion. Those that want to eat raw food are having their choices limited by government regulation more and more frequently. For example, as I stated in a previous post, “raw” almonds are not actually raw anymore. They have been sterilized, so the nutritional value of almonds has been lost.

Furthermore, we actually need bacteria in our gut not only to digest our food, but also to strengthen our immune system. We want lots of “good” bacteria in our gut, to help fight the bad bacteria like Listeria should we come in contact with it. If all our food is sterilized, we can’t get adequate good bacteria from our food to help keep us healthy. It is also worth realizing that our immune system becomes strong by coming into contact with various bacteria and viruses, so it can develop an ability to fight them. Furthermore, the rising numbers of children that have life-threatening food allergies is strongly related to the lack of contact the immune system has with bacteria in food and the over-clean environment. If we avoid exposure to microbes by using anti-bacterial soaps all the time, cooking all our food to death, avoiding touching dirt or having pets, I think we are not improving our health, but actually harming it. I actually think having a dog or cat in the house along with an infant is a very good idea for health reasons. If the environment is too clean, we develop allergies and are more susceptible to becoming sick. Immunity only comes with exposure to microbes.

Those of you that have read my blog / e-zine for some time know that I promote GRASS-FED raw dairy – something that makes most in the medical profession shudder, especially after a food-borne illness scare. I think that for most, if the cattle are healthy, not given any drugs or hormones, and are NOT FED ANY GRAIN, the taste, and nutritional benefits of raw outweigh the risks. Included in the nutritional benefits of raw GRASS-FED milk is “good” bacteria which populates the digestive tract and improves the immune system. Do your own research, and see what you think!

For those that are immuno-compromised, perhaps a way to begin building up good gut bacteria is to take a probiotic supplement, and include raw vegetables that have been washed well in the diet. Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, unpasteurized sauerkraut or kimchi, can be added into the diet in small amounts initially. Eating the highest quality real food one can afford, and avoiding sugar, flour and other processed food is key to maintaining good gut bacteria.

In order to be able to successfully treat those that suffer from food-borne bacterial infections like listeria or salmonella, it is important that we prevent the bugs from mutating and becoming resistant to anti-bacterial drugs. So, avoiding anti-bacterial soaps and running to the doctor to get an antibiotic for every minor sniffle is important. And if for some reason an antibiotic is really necessary, it is critically important to take probiotics after the prescription has run out, to repopulate the gut with good bacteria again.

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Related tips
Hospital Food – An opportunity waiting?
More on hospital food
In defense of Real Meat
Processed food is taking over our supermarkets
Bacteria, the soil, the gut, and detoxification
The Hygiene Hypothesis
Pastuerized almonds labeled as raw

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Copyright 2008 Vreni Gurd

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