The Coming Food Information Revolution
Beef – and eggs – just got a lot more interesting.
A group of researchers fed lean beef (nicely cooked) to a bunch of everyday meat eaters and vegans. They then investigated.
Did ingesting lean beef change lipid levels in the blood – you know, the stuff supposed to cause heart disease, stroke and potentially kill you? Not all that much much. But the beef contained lots of carnitine (carnem – latin for meat), often used as an “herbal” supplement. The gut bacteria in the meat eaters transformed carnitine into TMAO. TMAO is considered a very bad actor in atherogenesis – plaque formation and hardening of the arteries.
Then came the differences. The habitual meat eaters produced a whole lot more TMAO than the vegans. The vegans seemed to lack the “right” bacteria to convert carnitine into TMAO.
Eat meat, change your bacteria. You then get more of the same bacteria. The bugs then convert your food into at least one presumed arterial clogger.
Within a few weeks, a different group of researchers found the same results with eggs.
As we have learned over the last few years, when it comes to food, bacteria rule. Those 100 trillion critters do far more than digest food and make vitamins, environmental gas and usefully smooth effluent.
What bacteria really prove is a fact people should belatedly recognize – that the body is a giant information system/ecosystem. Inside it, food as information is transformed in millions of ways.
Does This Explain Why Meat Eaters Have More Atherosclerosis?
No. It just adds another potential cause.
There are plenty of new ones to go around. Every time you eat an animal or plant, you eat its genetic material.
Last year scientists in Nanjing found that humans absorb the micro-RNAs of plants. Some, like those from rice, increase cholesterol synthesis.
Eat rice, ingest RNA, change gene expression, create more cholesterol.
Who knew? There lots of other things we don’t know but probably will – maybe even soon (see below).
What Are the Implications For Nutrition?
1. That looking at food as collections of protein, carbohydrates, and fats may be useful for nutritionists, food companies, and school lunch committees, but remains hopelessly simplistic.
Foods contain thousands of other substances and chemicals which have not been characterized, studied in depth or investigated overh time. Many of these substances have strong physiologic, even drug effects.
What our 100 trillion bacteria do to them matters greatly. And what also matters is just what populations of bacteria happen to inhabit you when you ingest that food – rather like which countries hold what territory on a map.
Lots of other factors change how you transform the food inside you. They include how much you move, how and when you rest, how and when you eat, the size of your plates, the wall color of restaurants, etc. Most people don’t think that people given the same meal in a red room will eat one third more of the same meal than in a blue. But they do.
Food is complicated information – especially when it’s fun to eat.
The Implications for Supplements
We know hardly anything about what supplements really do. Marketing mavens and very friendly lobbyists have managed to pay off enough politicians to make sure supplements are lightly regulated and investigated – and allow them to be sold everywhere and to anyone – no matter what the buyer’s age.
Their marketing material “shows” they provide remarkable benefits – thicker hair, weight loss, sudden energy, better love making, increased attractiveness, and long life. However, most of the time the proof is inversely related to the breadth of their claims.
Carnitine is beloved of weight lifters. It’s also sold to lose weight and prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Do not expect supplement makers to actively market its potential for causing heart attack and stroke.
Which, honestly, is merely a hypothesis at this point. Like a lot of other things about supplements, no one knows what they really do. It’s possible that in the end carnitine might benefit some heart patients.
But what you don’t know may do harm.
The Implications For the Biome
Bacteria are powerful. We live with them – lots of them. Many of our genes are similar to theirs – or come from them. They change our food, produce vital resources, shift our immunity, and possess the potential to kill us – quickly.
It’s time we paid great attention to this large, non-voting population. Now implicated in autism, MS, atherosclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and America’s media public health enemy # 1 – weight – our individual, local bacteria may make or break us.
Except we don’t know how they do it.
Implications for the Food Industry
Food is about more than taste. It’s about health and health policy.
Survival, in fact. Including global environmental survival.
Bacteria don’t just affect disease. They probably change taste. They may, in time, be found to profoundly affect what we like to eat.
Chefs need to start seriously checking out the biome.
Implications for Health
The human body is a constantly regenerating information system. You are constantly remade.
Understanding that food is a form of information can get rid of a lot of domain specific academic and media hooey.
If you see every food as containing hundreds to thousands of information molecules, all of which change human and bacterial physiology, some things begin to make sense. You can stop obsessing about counting calories and start watching what food actually does to you – to your genes, your brain, your heart, your pleasures, pain, and future survival. You can get food out of the nutritional science ghetto and return its rightful place – central in life.
You can also start explaining things that have hitherto proven very confusing to some researchers:
Food is love. Food is pleasure. Food is energy. Food is fuel.
Food is a metabolic substrate for gut bacteria that transforms it into innumerable subtances that vastly affect individual physiology.
Food is information.
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