Restrictive diets aren’t the secret to staying slim. The key is diversity says Tim Spector, professor and author of the book “The Diet Myth.” Eating foods high in fiber, fermented products and food loaded with micronutrient polyphenols are scientifically proven to improve weight and help the complex microbiome flourish.
“This is where we’ve lost track, we’ve tried to simplify it and we’ve tried to say that calories in equals calories out and that one-size-fits-all and that if everyone has these 2,000 calories a day, they’ll be perfect. And of course, that advice has led to the whole world getting fatter,” Spector says in an interview on webisode Health Hackers. “[People have been taught] erroneous advice that fat is bad for you therefore avoid all things with fat, even healthy things.”
The Health Hackers episode is titled “Why your diet may never work until you get to know your microbiome.” Journalist Gemma Evans interviews Spector in his London research lab. Spector is a professor of genetics at King’s College in London. He has published over 800 research articles, and Reuters ranked him as the top 1% of the worlds must published scientists.
Spector began researching the microbiome seven years ago, when he became sick and wanted to know which diet would help him heal. His early delve into the microbiome fascinated him.
“We hadn’t understood the gut microbiome, which is this whole new organ in our bodies that was previously ignored,” Spector says. “I really got into this whole field and diverted my group’s research interest into discovering more about that microbiome that we all have. We’re all so different in our microbes, and this difference is how we all respond differently to foods and it explains a lot of mysteries.”
Microbiome is a Living Community
Spector describes the microbiome as a living community of trillions of microbes that produce chemicals, vitamins and hormones. Ninety-nine percent of microbes are in the gut, most in the lower gut or colon. Human cells only make up 43% of the human body — the rest are microbe cells.
Healthy microbiomes are full of diverse species. They help avoid overeating or under eating because a healthy microbiome self regulates.
“The healthier your microbiome, the healthier your body is in general because it means that your immune system is being well balanced and not overresponding,” he says. “It’s giving you resistance against its infections; it’s not overreacting to give you allergies.”
Researchers like Spector study the microbes with fecal samples. He says you can tell more about a person and what they’re eating through their fecal matter. Many commercial companies today advertise accurate health measurements by measuring genes through DNA samples.
“As a geneticist, that’s rubbish,” Spector says. “Statistically, it might be true, but actually at a personally level, it’s virtually no use. Our microbes are so much different than our DNA makeup. We share any, for example, 20 to 30 percent of our microbes [between] any two people. And so, understand how that community is and what’s different should mean that I can tell whether someone is healthy or whether they’re more likely to get fat or diabetes, [by] looking at the general diversity [of their microbes]. And I can also try and now use this information when you’ve got thousands of people to predict what the best foods are for people.”
Healthy Eating Myth Busting
It’s fascinating insight into the future of predictive health. Spector’s book, “The Diet Myth,” detailed how the health industry has failed the general public for roughly the past 30 years. People were told to eat low-fat foods, count their calories and get lots of exercise. Spector calls that advice “very old-fashioned, very 20th Century.”
“We only really understood food around those primitive concepts in these very broad categories of fats and sugars and proteins and we’ve ignored one of the big ones, which is fiber,” Spector says.
Diets cannot revolve around the three blocks of fats, sugar and protein. What matters, Spector says, is the total amount of chemicals consumed and the effects on the body. Take, for example, a banana. A banana can’t be defined in one of the three categories because it’s made up of 600 chemicals. Once a banana is ingested and combines with gut microbes it converts to 6,000 chemicals.
Making the microbiome more complex: everyone will react differently to that same banana. The effects of the chemicals produced will present differently in each individual.
Diversifying Diets — and Microbes
“Virtually all diets, people end up restricting what they eat which actually has a long-term effect of reducing your microbes and therefore they’re less able to cope with modern living,” he adds.
Spector said you cannot generalize healthy eating guidelines with broad generalizations when it comes to the microbiome because everyone will react differently. Human genetics shape the gut microbiome.
“But if you had to have one rule, people on very restrictive diets don’t do well and people who have the more diverse diets…are healthier,” he says. This is because a diverse diet is full of different nutrients and, in turn, build a diverse group of microbes. Spector compares the microbiome to a garden – the nutrients consumed are like the fertilizer helping the plants or microbes grow.
As the head of the Department of Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, Spector has studied the effect of microbes in twins. In one study, two mice with different weights were analyzed. The overweight mouse with less diverse microbes was given a fecal transplant from his twin, the skinnier mouse with a healthier microbiome. Once that healthier mouse was given the fecal transplant, the overweight mouse continued to lose weight, even when overfed.
“So those microbes are doing a really good job working overtime to convert metabolically to keep that stuff away from going into fat. They’re burning it up in ways we don’t really understand,” Spector says. “Your chances of having good microbes will increase the more you’ve got of them. So the people who have very limited number of microbes, who have very limited diets where they’re just on processed foods, have an increasingly smaller amount of nutrients in there and only a few microbe species like that restrictive species and they elbow the others out and then they can’t react in healthy ways:
Society has to stop demonizing junk food, Spector says, “we have to get away from the idea that these things are so deadly.” Eating a fast-food burger once a year could actually be good for the microbiome, Spector argues, because it will “wake up your system.”
Another study on mice found that mice who consumed lots of fiber (chickpeas, lentils), then were given a high-fat meal didn’t put on weight. Spector said it’s because they had a solid base, and then were given a high-fat meal once in moderation.
Spector is against the concept of clean eating (“There’s no such thing.”) and even processed food (“What’s processed food? It’s cheese. It’s milk. It depends where you draw the line.”). But he says ultra-processed food with harsh chemicals should be kept to an absolute minimum. Ultimately, no one should take a black and white view on food and limit what they eat.
What Should We Eat?
So what should we eat? Spector highlighted four food and drinks that help gut health: foods high in fiber, complex plants, fermented foods and polyphenols.
Fiber is important because it’s what microbes live off. Fiber is hard to digest early in the digestive track, so the nutrients reach the colon before being absorbed. Most ultra-processed foods are so full of sugar that they are absorbed extremely early in the digestive process. Microbes are destroyed by starving them of fiber — microbes can be wiped out if not fed fiber for long periods of time.
Complex plants, Spector advises, prioritizing vegetables first and fruit second. Fermented foods are full of the live bacteria critical for gut health. Spector suggests fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, Japanese fermented soy and even quality fermented chocolate. Polyphenols are an energy source for microbes, and can be found in any food like blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, olive oil, dark chocolate, seeds, coffee and green tea.
As far as pill supplements, Spector points out that there’s no scientific evidence yet that probiotic supplements benefit healthy people.
“I’m generally in favor of using food – yogurt, kefir, cheese — rather than expensive supplements,” he says.
Who is enjoying some sauerkraut at their July 4th BBQs? Pacific Sun magazine featured three Northern California sauerkraut makers — Sonoma Brinery, Wildbrine and Wild West Ferments. The article highlights the different fermenting techniques of the three brands and features this fascinating insight from David Ehreth, president and managing partner at Sonoma Brinery:
“If I can go nerd on you for a moment,” Ehreth warns, before diving into a synopsis about the lactobacillus bacteria that exist on the surface of all fresh vegetables. “You can’t remove them by washing.” What’s more, they immediately begin to feed and reproduce — but not in a bad way, unless they’re a bad actor, he insists.
“Those bacteria will really stake out their turf,” says Ehreth. “They’re very territorial. They go to war with each other.” The incredible part of it is that the four horsemen of the food industry — listeria, E. Coli, botulinum, and salmonella—are on lactobacilli’s hit list. None survive. Five bacteria enter — one bacterium leaves.
Quoting the Food and Drug Administration, Ehreth states, “There has been no documented transmission of pathogens by fermented vegetables.”
Read more (Pacific Sun)
Should a fermented food process need a patent? PepsiCo has filed a patent to ferment oat flour and dairy milk together. PepsiCo-owned Quaker Oats is creating a “spoonable or drinkable” clean-label product comparable to yogurt. The process involves co-fermenting a grain, dairy and a set of metabolites. This patent is unique because, while there are existing food products that combine unfermented and fermented dairy and grains, none co-ferment grain and dairy at the same time. In their application, PepsiCo notes that consumers are increasingly consuming fermented food products for health benefits.
Read more (World Intellectual Property Organization)
As Consumer Distrust in Probiotic Pills Grows, Fermentation Brands Need to Educate on Benefits of Live Bacteria
Probiotic supplements have been the hype of the health industry for the past few years, but the rage is dissipating. Consumers are starting to distrust probiotic pills, realizing a pill alone doesn’t deliver on promised health benefits.
“The thing is, you can’t just pop in a probiotic and get better health,” said Ashley Koff, a registered dietician and CEO of the Better Nutrition Program. “Consumers are waking up to the fact that our digestive health is more complicated than this. We need to start looking beyond probiotics.”
Good gut health requires more than just a single daily probiotic pill. Fermentation brands need to consider all the nutrients needed for a healthy gut as products are evaluated, marketed and advertised.
“You’re actually not what you eat. You are what you digest and absorb…The demands of our digestive health go so far beyond the probiotics,” said Koff, who spoke at Expo West on “Gut Health Revolution: A Radical New Approach Beyond Probiotics.” “When we walk about gut health, we often think about our stomach or our colon. But what were really talking about here are a bunch of different organs. We have to nourish multiple organs with complementary nutrient demands.”
The digestive system is the core to the entire body system. Koff said: “We cannot get and stay healthy without better digestion.” Most digestive health products isolate nutrients specific to one organ, she added. So while a probiotic may help the small intestine, for example, what feeds the probiotic? What makes the probiotic thrive?
Koff said most probiotic supplements and probiotic-infused products ignore other nutrients. What about magnesium, that helps relax the digestive tract? Probiotic supplements have been marketed as a one-time solution when other critical minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, fatty acids and alkaline are just as critical for gut health.
“We want to make sure we’re getting those nutrients that nourish the microbiome,” Koff said. Live, active bacteria will nourish the good bacteria in the gut, building the immune system. “If we’re getting probiotics, we need to get in prebiotics as well.”
Probiotics made $2 billion in sales in 2018, but their sales are slowing. Prebiotics, however, are doubling sales growth.
Simply put, prebiotics are the foods microbes in the gut like to eat. Mayco Clinic describes prebiotics as “specialized plant fibers (that) act like fertilizers that stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut.” Probiotics, on the other hand, are living organisms in specific straings of bacteria. Fermented foods are full of live, active cultures, like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha.
Koff said people shouldn’t be getting all their prebiotics from a supplement. Most prebiotics should come from food.
“It should be deliciously easy for us to get the nutrients that help our gut,” Koff said. “No supplement in the world can override a poor-quality diet. …That’s why it’s so important when you look at a prebiotic that you’re looking at something that’s a whole food, (especially) if a whole food gets fermented.”
Relying on food for all nutrients, though, is hard for the majority of people, Koff revealed. If your probiotic choice is granola, for example, are you going to continue eating that same granola and that same service every day to consistently meet your probiotic needs? And a very small number of people actually eat gut-boosting foods daily. “I find that’s a limiting factor,” Koff said.
Koff specifically touted Country Life’s new line of digestive aids, called Gut Connection. The prebiotics contain EpiCor, a whole food prebiotic. The Gut Connection line contains eight products consumers can take for their needs, like balancing digestive, mood, sleep, stress or weight. Country Life sponsored Koff’s education session.
Put down the Gatorade, athletes — the best performance-enhancing substance is fermented food and drinks. An article in sports magazine STACK says athletes are overlooking fermented products for workout nutrition. Fermented products — like raw sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt and kefir — heal the body with beneficial bacteria and combat gut imbalances. “The better our digestion, the better we utilize the food we are putting into our body, leading to even better improvements in our strength and health,” the article states. Though there is little research in the field, the article points to one study which found probiotics helped female college athletes improve body composition and deadlift performance.
Read more (STACK)
A salmonella, E. coli or botulism outbreak can destroy a food brand. Entrepreneurs must be vigilante about food safety, understanding their suppliers, copackers and labels.
Linda Harris, the department chair for the Food Science & Technology Department at the University of California, Davis, shared advice for new food producers to safely launch a business. Harris spoke with her UC Davis colleagues during an education session at Natural Products Expo West. Fermented products, which undergo unconventional processing, are not exempt from food safety measures. Harris emphasized putting “raw” on a label doesn’t protect a brand from food regulations.
“What I would caution someone who would be putting raw on their label is, first of all, understand what you mean by the word raw,” Harris said. “Having raw on your label doesn’t eliminate your responsibility to do the hazard analysis for your product. If a pathogen is a significant hazard, you still have to control for it. … It doesn’t get you off the hook by putting ‘raw’ on the label.”
Recalls as Cautionary Examples
Harris jokes she specializes in being a downer. As a food microbiologist, she shares cautionary examples of brands responsible for food poisoning. Food companies ask Harris for advice on how to maneuver food safety regulations, and Harris admits she still has to look up regulations because they are so complicated.
“You must understand how to control your hazards,” Harris said. “For some entrepreneurs, some smaller processors, that’s been a bit of a challenge to do because.”
She shared the example of the mystery green powder. Many food producers use green powders to make their product – but Harris says brands need to understand the ins and outs of their ingredients. Testing alone will not deal with vulnerabilities. Companies need to ask questions, like: Does the supplier label exactly what’s in the ingredient? If it’s labeled, is it accurate? What processes are used to make the ingredients? Does the process enhance safety? What contaminants are in the ingredients? What kind of controls are in place?
The 2016 Garden of Life RAW Meal Organic Shake & Meal outbreak was one such example. Salmonella in the powder infected 33 people in 23 states. The Salmonella was traced back to a supplier’s ingredient. Can food processors trust each one of their ingredient suppliers, Harris questioned?
“A very challenging thing to do by any strength of the imagination,” she said, especially for a small processor. “How do you know when you’re buying your powders that there aren’t things beyond the Salmonella or the bacteria that I’m concerned about or pesticides or other chemicals or heavy metals that might be present?”
As more natural food brands enter the market, processors are sourcing unique ingredients, many from international suppliers.
“(When) youre not able to see that process or interact with that process, I think that’s a real concern,” Harris adds. “That’s where I see small entrepreneurs being especially vulnerable because they don’t have the power to say ‘I am going to buy 50 pounds of your powder, so I’d like to have a full tour of your facility.’ You lose some of that power compared to being a large manufacturer where millions of dollars are at stake.”
Question Every Step
Harris shared tips for avoiding food safety disasters.
- Check with regulators early and often. From USDA and FDA inspectors to state government agencies, Harris said she’s found government regulators are very willing to share feedback on food safety.
- Tour supplier and processor facilities. The SoyNut Butter E. coli outbreak of 2017 was another supplier mistake. After 32 people became infected from SoyNut Butter, the brand recalled the product. During their investigation, they found their contract manufacturer was operating in unsanitary conditions. The facility was dusty, equipment hadn’t been cleaned for 15 months and there was no hot water or soap. Harris noted, if the food company simply walked through the facility, they would have quickly seen issues.
- Use a copacker. Copackers are food safety experts, and a great option for small companies to avoid safety hazards. Copackers will take a recipe, make the food product and package it. They are the food safety experts, so a new food company doesn’t have to master food safety. Still, Harris warned, tour the copacker facility. “If you think just a small processor is vulnerable to issues with copackers… even major companies can I think get into a lull of not making those checks and not following up to make things are going well,” she said.
- Ask lots of questions. Harris advises, if a food brand is putting ingredient or processing trust in another company, be prepared to double check their facilities and healthy claims.
Harris recently had to practice what she preaches. As the department chair, she had to axe the students plan to make vegan ice cream for the university’s Picnic Day. The powder the students found was sourced from a Midwest company who wouldn’t share details on how they eliminate pathogens. So Harris did not give students permission to buy the powder for vegan ice cream.
“If you’re in this area, I think you do need to be able to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” she said. “When you go to your supplier to ask them how are you controlling for these things in the ingredient you’re giving me, that you expect transparency.”
Fermented Products Not Exempt
Fermentation often creates a false air of safety, Harris said. Just because fermentation has a global tradition doesn’t mean fermented foods are all created under safe conditions.
In 2013, The Cultured Kitchen had to recall their cashew cheese after 17 people became infected with Salmonella. Testing found the fermented cashews were the source of the outbreak. The copacker had multiple critical equipment malfunctions, like an uncalibrated thermometer and no kill step.
Fermented food, Harris stresses, are extremely safe. Fermented foods have a long history of safety. But new products and ingredients that are fermented which have historically never been fermented before, makes food safety murky.
For more information on food safety, check out the UC Davis Food Safety website.
To celebrate its 100th anniversary, Danone is releasing its collection of 1,800 yogurt strains to the public. In a press release, Danone said the announcement coincides with Danone’s “commitment to promoting open science, a movement toward openness in scientific research, sharing and development of knowledge through collaborative networks.” Danone would like others to use the strains for research purposes. The French company is also granting access to its current collection of 193 lactic and bifidobacteria ferment strains deposited at the National Collection of Cultures of Microorganisms, held in the Biological Resource Center of Institut Pasteur in Paris. The first Danone yogurt was made by Isaac Carasso in 1919 in Barcelona. Barcelona’s own children suffered from poor gut health, and he was inspired by research from the Institute Pasteur that detailed the role of ferments in gut and overall health. Barcelona began selling his first yogurts, which were fermented with lactic ferments, in Barcelona’s pharmacies.
Read more (Danone)
The gut microbiome is pivotal to human health, and the biggest aid to nourishing a healthy microbiome is our diet.
“The tools of our diet…are a really valuable resource for our microbiome,” says Maria Marco, professor in the UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology. “They’re noninvasive, easy to use, low cost. We can improve our microbiome using specific ingredients, targeting microorganisms, using foods like living fermented foods or probiotics to directly contribute to our microbiome.”
Marco, a speaker at Natural Products Expo West, shared insight from her research at UC Davis’ Marco Lab, where Marco and a team of students study microorganisms impact on food safety, food quality and gut health. Their cutting-edge research is scratching the surface of the complex microbiome.
Microbiome research has transformed in the past 10-15 years. Marco says scientists had relied on 19th Century microbiology of the prior hundred years. New advancements in chemistry, engineering, data science and DNA sequencing “revealed this hidden world.”
“We’re riding a wave right now. We’re appreciating more than ever before that we are living in microbial world,” Marco said. “The magnitude of what these microorganisms can be doing…is tremendous.”
Our bodies are only 1 percent human – the rest of our body structure is made of trillions of microorganisms. Every human carries about 1 kilogram of their bodyweight in microbial biomass.
Marco said for years we’ve thought of the intestines as an empty tube, but these microorganisms reside in our digestive tract. The microbiome performs critical functions, like digestion, detoxification of food, synthesis of vitamin and development of immune system and brain.
But our microbes may not always aid our body. The beneficial organisms that create a rich microbiome have changed over human history because of the prevalent use of antibiotics, and changes to diet, hygiene and lifestyle.
There are only a few ways to improve the microbiome, Marco says – drugs, fecal transplants or diet. Marco said the best way to achieve a healthy microbiota is through the diet, by eating the microorganisms our gut needs.
The diet, she says, needs to be full of fermentable fiber. Humans eat diet-associated microbes in prebiotics and probiotics.
One study from Marco Lab found that, when adults added fermentable fiber to their diet, the microbes thrived off these nutrients, and the good bifidobacteria thrived. The microbiome was significantly altered.
“How do we get microorganisms? First of all, just by eating fresh foods and vegetables,” Marco says. The second is eating “fermented foods (which give us) exposure to a higher number of these organisms. They hey have to be foods where the microbes are still alive, such as in yogurt or fresh sauerkraut. And then lastly, we can have probiotics, organisms that we either take in supplements or put into foods in an even higher number so were getting an even higher doses of these organisms over time.”
There are specific bacteria strains found in fresh fermented foods, and some are sold today as strains in probiotic supplements. Thousands of clinical studies show probiotics are beneficial to digestive health – but today, microbiologists are seeing probiotics aid other areas of the body, like vaginal health and neurocognitive function.
“As we study these organisms, we’re really guided by a couple questions, practical questions that need to be answered in order to take probiotics to the next level of where we need to have them in our food and medicine,” Marco said. Like what strain should be used, what dose taken and how long should it be used. “We don’t really have answers to this and it’s really hard as a consumer to know which to use.”
Marco Lab studied 42 strains of lactobacillus bacteria, and found each strain has different properties. “The breadth of what we saw was really outstanding,” Marco said.
The future of the field of research is knowing the individual properties of these strains, Marco said. Like can a certain strain alter our mood, another prevent obesity and another support our immune system? The strains are so complex, “we’re starting to get a handle on what specific things they’re doing.”
Safety of the strains is critical. Marco noted the next generation of probiotics need food safety standards. These are organisms that are not found in foods, and Marco said “the bar needs to be quite high.”
“More studying needs to be done. In the microbiome world, we’re really at the starting stages,” Marco says. “But we need the right science so we know if we’re giving the right organisms to the right people at the right time.
Fermented foods are “a ‘new’ health trend with roots dating back to 6000 B.C. in civilizations all over the world” writes nutritionist Danielle Mein from the University of Maryland Medical System in a column for the Baltimore Sun. The amount of probiotics in a food is determined by the length of fermentation, Mein adds. True fermented foods, she argues, “must be refrigerated and unpasteurized” — what do you think, would you still call a product fermented if it was shelf stable?
Read more (The Baltimore Sun)