I never really understood the organic craze as a teenager. Around the mid-2000s, the label “organic” suddenly emerged and spread with vigorous intensity, surpassing the r-naught value of measles. Restaurants, cafes and supermarkets fell in love with the term, pasting it seemingly indiscriminately on any product in sight — fruits, flowers, poultry, milk, cereals, medicine and even makeup!
Curious with the huge fanfare that ushered organics into town, I took my teenage self to scrutinize the products, but stepped out of the store as fast as I had stepped in. The markedly higher prices that branded organic goods deterred me from purchasing them. Buying a Red Delicious apple for a dollar more than its usual price seemed too extravagant, and I shrugged off this trend with the same nonchalance I had towards other marketing scams trying to extract my money.
Although I was not willing to become an evangelical organic consumer, I still kept tabs on the industry and continued researching the field. After all, there has to be some value to using natural processes and staying away from synthetic chemicals with potential carcinogenic properties, right? At the time, there was not enough convincing research to overwhelmingly support the organic food mania, and I needed a secure chunk of evidence before I could make any outlandish financial decisions.
It turns out that, in the context of the human microbiome, our microbial friends thrive in the presence of organic produce. As opposed to conventional food that is bathed in a pool of harsh pesticides and repellants, organic items are not treated with artificial chemicals and thus attract a suite of microorganisms to live on their surface and in their soil. When we eat organic produce, we connect ourselves to the external microbial world, therefore allowing a wider range of beneficial species to reside in our gut. Organic food also lets us reacquaint our immune system to reality; instead of squeaky-clean, triple-washed and chemically treated fruits and vegetables that bear little to no microbes, organic goods enhance our immunity by getting the body to recognize (and stay calm in) the presence of good microorganisms.
Organic food is actually better for you (and your gut). So what else can we do to improve the health of our microbiome?
Eating fermented foods, which contain a wealth of good bacteria, is a great boost for your microbiome: sauerkraut, kimchi and pickled vegetables are wonderful choices. As I recently discovered in a Florida cafe, kombucha is a microbiome-friendly beverage as well. Kombucha tastes as eclectic as it sounds — if you go to a trendy or health-conscious place, it will typically have this drink on tap. It’s fermented tea with a delightful sparkly (but carbonation-free) aftertaste.
Another way to cultivate a robust microbiome is to break out of your bubble. Crack open the window. Let the air flow through your hair, and get in touch with your environment. Most of our lives are spent inside cars, trains, homes, gyms or offices. This further isolates us from beneficial microbes in the atmosphere. Increasing your contact with nature will power your body — don’t be afraid to take that outdoor walk or jog.
Finally, don’t pack your body with processed carbs. Be wary of chips, cereal, white bread, cookies, pretzels, waffles, pancakes, most pastas, cakes, muffins, pies, bagels and battered foods. Though these items are tasty, they warp your microbial balance by introducing irritants and allergens to your body and increasing your risk of chronic illnesses. When in doubt, go for fresh produce instead!
Though supporting a robust microbiome can seem like a monstrous task, it doesn’t have to be. The key word is “natural.” Limit your exposure to overly processed, refined, synthetic or otherwise artificial products, integrate yourself with the outside world and get in tune with nature. This means staying away from that unnecessary hand sanitizer spritz in the car, eating your greens and accepting the organic enthusiasm; this healthy trend is determined to stay.
Nikita Deshpande is a rising sophomore in the College. Microbial Explorations appears every other Wednesday.
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