Is it dangerous to eat microbe-enhanced foods?

A group of public-health officials developed a way to classify all food into four groups. The group calls its scheme NOVA. It is not an acronym. The first three groups are healthy. The fourth group, ultra-processed foods, is not. Despite claims to the contrary, ultra-processing is not about processing. It is about adding a few additives to a complex combination of chemicals in real food. Is this classification reasonable or arbitrary? What if the group used a different criterion to classify foods? What if they used added microbes as the reason to call foods microbe-enhanced? Let’s call this new scheme MONA. Following is a fable that is mere fiction to illustrate a broader point.

WARNING—THE FOLLOWING DESCRIPTION IS NOT TRUE. It is a fictional account. My goal is to show that arbitrary categories lead to erroneous conclusions. DO NOT TAKE ITALICIZED COMMENTS AS TRUE. They represent FAKE NEWS. The link in it is not fake.

Have you ever wondered how microbes in our foods could be safe? I mean germs are microbes aren’t they? Then there are all those food recalls about food poisoning. I don’t want what I eat to make me sick! And, what about spoiled foods? Food scientists tell me that most of them are safe to eat. But I don’t know. I don’t even want to think about eating spoiled food. It makes me want to throw up! Beware of the addition of microbes to raw foods. The microbes convert raw foods to products not recognizable as real food. I want real food not food that microbes have digested and spit out. Gross! I have divided foods into four categories to keep what we eat safe and free of microbes.

cans of vegetables
Group One: Microbe-free foods are always safe

MONA GROUP ONE: Microbe-free foods are hard to find. The two main processes that sterilize foods are canning and irradiation. OK, the technical description of canning is commercial sterilization. It kills all the microbes that could make us sick or spoil the food. There might be a botulism spore though, like 1 in a trillion cans. That is good enough for me and the MONA committee. Canned foods and irradiated foods that claim sterility fit into Group One. They are the safest foods to eat.

MONA GROUP TWO: Microbe-protected culinary ingredients need some degrees of preservation. The news here is not good. Many spices and other common ingredients are carriers of microbes. In a dry state these microbes can’t harm us. Addition of water to food powders activate microbial growth. The good news is that many companies treat their spices with gas or irradiation to kill microbes. Salt has few microbes associated with it. Salt acts as a preservative and prevents microbial growth in general. Sugar is also a preservative, but it helps microbes grow in other circumstances. Flour and other starches have no place in the home pantry. These ingredients become susceptible to microbes upon the addition of water. Look for culinary ingredients that have at least six ingredients on the label. The more unpronounceable ingredients listed, the safer it is.

MONA GROUP THREE: Preserved foods undergo techniques like freezing, drying, and roasting. Hydrolyzed ingredients and extruded products also fit into Group Three. The more additives present, the safer the food will be. A product label helps us learn which items include preservatives and other additives. Look for ingredients that have acid in them as they help slow microbial growth.

packaged bread products
Group Four: Microbe-enhanced foods should be avoided

MONA GROUP FOUR: Microbe-enhanced foods and foods that speed up microbial activity. Any food processed by deliberate addition of microbes fits into this group. Most bread and bakery products are microbe enhanced. Chemical leavening with baking powder or baking soda produces microbe-free baked goods. Fruits and grains are the ingredients needed to produce beer, wine, and liquor. Added sugar speeds up the process. Vinegar and soy sauce come from similar microbial processes. Microbes act on vegetables to produce lactic acid to produce sauerkraut and kimchi. Add cultures to milk, and lactic acid forms to make yogurt and ripened cheese. Microbial treatment of meats and fish leads to sausages and other delicacies. Added enzymes are also a problem. Probiotics and prebiotics encourage growth of microbes in our guts. Avoid these products if possible. Pasteurization only kills microbes that pose an immediate threat. Why do you think that milk spoils? Microbes survive the process.

Fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, and other uncooked items fit into Group Four. Any raw food that microbes can change to form a different food qualify. Refrigeration of these foods slows activity of microbes but does not prevent it. Remember the goal is to decrease microbes in the foods we eat.

How to avoid microbe-enhanced foods. The biggest dangers from microbe-enhanced foods come from excess microbes. The body has defenses against some microbes growing inside us. Too many microbes can overwhelm our immune systems, causing us to become sick. The FDA and USDA doesn’t want you to know this, as it could affect the national economy. The best way to avoid microbes is to eat as many canned foods as possible. Frozen foods with at least six ingredients are, in general, safe. The only forbidden ingredient is sugar in any of its forms. Take a careful look at the Nutrition Facts part of its label. Any sugars present make it microbe-enhancable. Eat dried foods dry. Adding water could activate these microbes. Be wary of incorporating any powdered foods into home recipes. Any home prepared foods that use any of these ingredients are also microbe-enhanced.

Back to reality

OK, if you have not figured it out, microbe enhancement is fermentation. Foods to avoid in the MONA scheme are either fermentable or fermented. It is a vast network of foods associated only by an exposure or potential exposure to microbes. Such a classification would place over 50% of the American diet into Group Four. Large database studies could correlate fermentation with diseases like alcoholism, heart disease, and obesity. There are certain microbe-enhanced foods that would correlate well with these diseases. That could lead to headlines like

EVEN HEALTHY MICROBE-ENHANCED FOODS TIED TO ALCOHOLISM

MICROBE-ENHANCED FOOD INCREASES RISK OF EARLY DEATH AND DIGESTIVE DISEASE

MICROBE-ENHANCED FOODS MAKE US SICKER

These headlines mimic those describing the dangers of ultra-processed foods. NOVA groups too many unrelated foods into a single category. Subsequent correlation studies imply that all ultra-processed foods cause a specific disease. When subdivided, a few subgroups will have higher correlations. Until then, how can we tell if a food is unhealthy or safe and which ones are guilty by association? It is misleading to classify foods by presence or absence of food additives or microbes. It tells us nothing about the health or safety of individual foods. MONA would find similar relationships as there are many foods that overlap in the last group.

In defense of fermented foods. I have nothing against fermented or fermentable foods. They are as much a part of my diet as ultra-processed foods. Many fermented foods have achieved a halo of healthiness. Others, containing alcohol, are coming under scrutiny. NOVA doesn’t consider nonalcoholic fermentation to be a food process. Such fermentations change food properties to those not recognizable as the original food. I apologize to anyone offended by my mischaracterization of food fermentation.

Next week: The Secret History of Home Economics

2 thoughts on “Is it dangerous to eat microbe-enhanced foods?

  1. MONA is a good analogy to prove you point. Okay, so let’s break down the category. Here’s how I would start breaking down NOVA Group 4.

    Let’s start by considering the food matrix / cellular structure of the ingredients. The more a food is broken down before we eat it, the easier it is for our gut to absorb and metabolize the nutrients. Not a question of good or bad, just an observation on difference.

    At one end, we have industrial formulations that are manufactured completely with substances derived from foods by breaking down the food matrix / disrupting the cellular structure. These products are often but not always nutritionally imbalanced and use modern food technological processes to prolong shelf life and enhance appearance or taste. Examples of products that I would classify at this end of the spectrum are Twinkies, Impossible Burger, Fruit Loops.

    On the other end, we have industrial formulations that are made with some “intact” ingredients that respect the food matrix / cellular structure. These products are sometimes nutritionally balanced / sometimes not, and employ modern food technological processes to ensure food safety and convenience. Products I would classify at the other end of the spectrum are Bread Alone Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, Amy’s Enchilada with Spanish rice & Beans , and Post Great Grains cereals.

    Products at both ends of the spectrum can be categorized as ultra-processed, however, I would argue that there are differences both in the degree of processing and in the disruption of the food matrix that are worth noting.

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    1. Hi Linn,
      Don’t feel like you need to let me revel in the confines of MONA. You have forced me back to NOVA-land!

      OK, let’s talk about the food matrix. I agree that the digestive system is not geared to break down dietary fiber in intact fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains. Part of that breaking down is affected by mastication, however. The more we chew, the more digestible plant cells become. There are arguments on both sides as to whether that is a good or a bad thing. When it comes to animal-based foods, it is probably more about the level of fat than the cellular structure. Is there that much difference in the digestibility of ground beef versus a steak other than the level of fat? Just asking, I don’t know. The higher the level of fat, the slower the digestive process. Current thought is that the more dietary fiber and the less fat the better. How do matrix effects differ in plant-based foods from animal-based foods? Most raw plant-based ingredients derive from food tissue. Eggs and milk are not tissues. How does that fit into the matrix? I confess that I have not read any of the articles you referred to me on the food matrix. I need to bite the bullet, so I will be better informed on the topic. An interesting sidelight is that food scientists refer to food matrices in processed foods, particularly in gels or thickened products.

      Part of the nutritional imbalance you describe relates to natural versus added (synthetic) nutrients. There is a whole category of ultra-processed foods, known as functional foods, that tend to have high levels of nutrients. Such foods are rarely mentioned in the UPF discussion. I like the concept of a spectrum of products for NOVA Group 4. I note that your examples on both ends of the spectrum are all plant-based. Many animal-based foods are also ultra-processed. Where would these foods fit on your spectrum. Also, where do structured foods fit. The Impossible Burger has structure. Will it be more or less digestible than a Whopper or a T-bone steak? I don’t know, but my view of digestion and nutrient absorption is more complex than you suggest. I am still working on a new term for “intact” ingredients. Each comment you make, helps me better understand the concept.

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