CHESTER – Two local scientists and organic farmers think that the more bacteria on your food the better it is for you, and they’re looking to prove it.
While the push for several decades has been to eliminate bacteria wherever possible, as sterile environments were often thought to be the healthiest, with new research finding that the microorganisms that inhabit our body are integral to our health, Daniela Connelly and Laura Wolfer are looking to determine whether there’s a difference between the bacteria found on food grown with industrial practices and food grown more naturally.
While sitting in Connelly’s kitchen at her farm on Haverhill Road, as outside new baby goats frolicked, bees brought pollen back to hives and a new round of chickens were being harvested, the two explained their latest endeavor.
In their professional lives Connelly is a family and integrative physician focusing on nutrition and wellness and Wolfer is a molecular biologist and anthropologist. Both have children and run small farms, and often get to talking about how the different worlds they inhabit cross over, especially when it comes to keeping their families healthy by making wise food choices.
The focus of their project is the microbiome, specifically the group of good bacteria and micro-organisms that live in the gut.
Though research is relatively new (10 or 15 years) scientists are finding that “gut flora” not only help us digest food, but also protect us from infection, mitigate allergic responses and even impact mood.
Connelly explained that research is finding all sorts of correlations between the health of gut flora and various autoimmune diseases, allergies, obesity and even autism.
The group of micro-organisms found throughout the body, Connelly said, is starting to be understood as another organ because of how integral it is to the way the rest of the body functions.
And how people get populated with these tiny helpers is key to Connelly’s and Wolfer’s project. While most of the colonization happens very early in life and is affected by everything from how one is born (C-section births are found to have less complex microbiomes than vaginal births) to whether a child is breastfed (undigestable sugars in the milk promote beneficial baby gut bacteria), what people eat in later life can impact and change this biome. And Connelly and Wolfer suspect that the kinds of bacteria on food can vary widely depending on agricultural practice.
While both women can explain in depth the benefits of organic practices for the fruits, vegetables and meats they produce, they want to know whether those practices translate into more healthy bacteria on the food itself.
“Our thought process is that maybe the way food is produced from an agricultural point of view determines the variety of bacteria that your gut is exposed to. If you have a peach on a tree that is surrounded by birds and it’s visited by insects and it’s next to other plants and it’s in an environment that’s in equilibrium, that peach may have a myriad of bacteria, probably mostly good,” Connelly said. “But if you then go to a monoculture where trees are sprayed systematically, herbicides are applied, weeds are removed, insects are killed off, there may be a difference. Maybe we should be worried about the nutritional component of organic food but maybe we should also be interested in looking at what’s on the food, as a delivery source of the diverse gut flora that we need.”
“We come from both worlds and we’re trying to connect the two in a way not previously done,” said Wolfer.
Wolfer said people have been conditioned, likely since the 1950s, that bacteria are bad, so it can be a struggle to get people to understand that most of the bacteria they encounter are good for them.
Less than 1 percent of bacteria across the planet are pathogenetic, explained Wolfer.
The two spoke about how humans co-evolved with these invisible organisms and only relatively recently decided to try to eliminate them.
“We evolved to have our hands deep in the dirt; consume food without disinfecting it first; to consume berries straight from the bush. I’m not saying, ‘Eat contaminated food.’ What we’re saying is that perhaps there’s a place to be conscientiously eating food that isn’t pasteurized,” said Connelly.
Wolfer said what we eat has shifted drastically in recent decades from practices that existed for millions of years.
“It’s really an abrupt change in what we’re eating and how we’re eating that our bodies really haven’t adjusted to,” said Wolfer, suspecting that a lot of the new problems people’s bodies are facing are a direct result of that shift.
Connelly noted that autoimmune diseases began to appear as industrialization swept the globe. And while there have been great strides in eliminating diseases, a lack of subtlety in that work may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
“It’s awesome that we don’t have cholera, you know?” Connelly joked. “That’s great. But at the same time, do we have to sterilize to the point we’re depleting our internal protectors?”
But being scientists, they’re not looking to espouse theories without some hard proof. And this is where their latest experiment comes into play. They’re looking to raise money to test food from different sources to find out just what’s living on them.
It’s research that’s not out there yet, and could be an important part of the puzzle scientists across the planet are trying to put together when it comes to the microbiome.
Connelly and Wolfer are not part of a research lab or academia, so they’re looking to raise the money through crowd sourcing. Connelly lauds the effort as a democratic way to support causes people find important. The two have a page on experiment.com where they explain their backgrounds and plans and where people from all walks of life can donate.
They’re looking to raise $10,000, most of which will go to the complicated gene sequencing analysis that a specialized lab in San Francisco will perform. Their deadline for fundraising is soon.
For more information or to help out, visit www.experiment.com/projects/eat-your-vegetables-eat-your-microbes.