Thursday, February 7, 2013 carrots and the hygiene hypothesis?

*Image found at

This thing cracks me up. It also makes me think a lot about baby carrots ...aaaand other stuff.

Baby carrots have been hotly debated, shrouded in intrigue, and debunked many times. And yet, despite being the would-be food aficionado that I am, I've never investigated them. I'd always assumed they were just cut up and tumbled larger carrots, or something like that. It turns out I was right but there's more to the story. The chlorine debate! (click here for totally worth it funny shock/suspense sound effect)

There have long been allegations that baby carrots are soaked in enough chlorine to make them toxic. According to this informative post on 100 Days of Real Food, at least the organic variety produced by Grimmway is not. Rather, they are "treated" by being sprayed or briefly dipped in a mild sanitizing solution, which is actually the produce industry norm. In an effort to kill pathogenic strains of bacteria (Salmonella, Listeria, etc...), most produce is washed or sprayed with an EPA approved germicidal solution (good band name?) composed of water and chlorine in such a small concentration (we're talking parts per million here) that it's considered by most to be harmless or at least the better of two evils.

In addition to practices like this, food producers and purveyors in most states are required to dip or rinse all dishes and utensils in a sanitizer bath and to clean all surfaces with sanitizer solution throughout the entire food production process. Cool fact; in milk production even teats are dipped in sanitizer solutions! The fact that chlorine, and in some places fluoride, is mixed in with our drinking water, means we're consuming a bit of the stuff practically all the time. In very low quantities, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like chlorine in drinking agua haven't yet been conclusively proven to cause us harm (I'm going to use my Britta anyhow) but we need to be really concerned with the sterilization of our world because bacteria also helps us to stay healthy.

Interestingly, some of the bugs we're so afraid of, E. coli and the like, also have strains that offer major benefits to our immune systems and are often naturally occurring in our GI tracts. These and other bacteria make up what some scientists are now calling our "second brain". This brain, known as the enteric nervous system (ENS) or intrinsic nervous system, communicates with our other brain, our "first brain" as it were, and choreographs a microbial ballet within our bodies that regulates our immune responses. Did you know that on average the human body contains between 2-6 pounds of bacteria at any given time? It's amazing and powerful stuff and with all the hand sanitizer and antibiotics going around, we are in serious risk of doing more harm to ourselves than good.

The hygiene hypothesis says that when humans are introduced to a wide variety of bacteria, especially early on, and even in utero, that this exposure teaches our bodies to respond more appropriately to incoming microbe-derived signals from our environments (i.e. germs, pathogens and such) and therefore develop fewer allergies and stronger immune systems overall.

Probiotics, the healthy "bugs" we try to foster, maintain, and reintroduce to out bodies are all the rage now and they should be. Comedian Tig Notaro's recent life-threatening Clostridium Difficile (C. diff) infection poignantly makes the case for the importance of microbial balance in our systems (click to listen to the episode about it on her amazing podcast, Professor Blastoff). In fact, scientists are so concerned with maintaining microbial harmony in the gut that they've developed (insert adjective of your choice here) procedures like fecal transplants and hook worm introduction to restore intestinal health.

Long story short, we desperately need germs and gut bacteria to be healthy and thrive. There are all sorts of cool projects going on to address this, including several interesting ones in Africa that used yogurt to help people with HIV/AIDS improve their immune function. Very cool!

Whoa! I wonder is the clever person who made the silly photo above would have ever predicted that I'd get from baby carrots to all this? I could go on and on, and I do plan to post more on bacterially mediated fermentation in food production later (and about my husband's obsession with all foods fermented to the extent that he even notices when his favorite TV characters eat yogurt and points it out to me. He's pretty darn cute!), but right now I'm going to eat some yogurt myself!