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Foodborne Outbreaks May Bring Opportunity To Increase Fiber Awareness

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 24, 2007

Is it possible that all this attention to deadly pathogens will rebound to the benefit of the produce industry? This article in The San Francisco Chronicle by Jeff D. Leach, the director of a Paleobiotics lab in New Orleans, Louisiana, holds out that possibility:

In the wake of E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks associated with spinach and other produce in 2006, the 110th Congress will be dusting off and re-introducing the Food Safety Act, initially proposed in 2005 by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to assure the American public that the federal government is working hard to substantially reduce future food-borne outbreaks.

Unfortunately, this well-intended legislation will fall short of anything meaningful, as its patrons most certainly fail to understand the basic evolutionary rules of the germ warfare raging in the American gut and the bigger challenges facing the populace in this biological arms race.

As executives of the produce industry hit hardest by the illness and deaths attributed to strains of E. coli in 2006 brace for a possible onslaught of new regulations and additional inspectors trudging about their fields and packaging plants, they need only look out to the fields beyond their office windows to see a better solution to what ails them and the American public. The need is acute: Last Wednesday, Salinas-based produce packager Fresh Express offered $2 million in research funding to find ways to keep produce safe.

The media attention given to E. coli has raised the awareness of deadly pathogens in our environment. This may be an opportunity for industry and the government to highlight the importance of increasing fiber intake via fruits and vegetables. Government health messages to do so have had little success. Maybe it’s time to change the message.

Among the lush greens, yellows and reds of the American produce landscape, lies a simple, but critical component, to our evolutionary success as a species and the best defense we have ever had against reducing our risk from E. coli and other pathogens that seek to harm us on the biological battlefield that is us.

The simple defense to be found in these fields is good old dietary fiber.

Of which fresh fruits and vegetables are most often excellent sources. Fiber is also necessary:

…The friendly bacteria in our bodies are the first line of defense against invading pathogens, such as E. coli. Like any good soldier, they require food to fight the good fight. Dietary fiber is an important part of that nutrient base.

Simply stated: Fiber is not food for us, it’s food for the bacteria that live in our gut.

Our not-so-distant ancestors regularly consumed between 50 and 100 grams — and sometimes more — dietary fiber from diverse sources every day. This is the nutritional reality upon which our modern genome was selected and the symbiotic relationship which the trillions of bacteria in our gut evolved to depend upon.

However, the average American today consumes about 12 to 15 grams a day of dietary fiber — roughly half of what the government recommends and only a fraction of what our gut bugs need in order to resist infection and disease caused by a steady stream of pathogenic bacteria and viruses that enter our gut every day.

Put another way, the question we need to ask may not be why are these pathogens in the environment? It may be why do people get so sick from them?

The health implications of our staggering drop in consumption of dietary fiber has opened the door to E. coli and its band of pathogenic brothers who make millions of people sick every year, sending hundreds of thousands to the emergency room and an increasing number of us to the morgue.

The important symbiotic relationship we share with our friendly microbes and their role in our natural resistance to infection should be taking center stage in the upcoming congressional hearings on how to best protect “the people” from the inevitable food-borne pathogens associated with produce, and specifically, how to deal with this monster, E. coli.

The recent outbreaks have understandably made the American public skittish, not only about spinach and other produce tainted with E. coli, but about produce in general. This may pave the way for an additional decrease of fiber in the American diet, resulting in poorer gut health and reduced ability to resist infectious agents.

For E. coli specifically, stimulating the growth of a group of healthy bacteria in the human gut known as bifidobacterium by consuming special prebiotic dietary fibers known as oligosaccharides — found in plants such as onions, leeks, garlic, chicory and artichokes — can fortify our natural resistance.

It is a fascinating hypothesis: The problem is that we are not eating enough fiber, including high fiber fruits and vegetables, and this leads to a system that can’t resist infection and disease, which leads us to reduce fruit and vegetable consumption which weakens us further.

The solution: Eat more high fiber produce.

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