Having been vilified since their discovery, microbes are starting to gain a new reputation as the unsung heroes of healthy food!
We share more about these tiny organisms and what they mean for your health.
What Are Microbes?
The term "microbe" actually refers to a range of organisms including: bacteria, archaea, fungi, protists, viruses and other microscopic animals. This community of single or multiple-celled organisms can be prokaryotes or eukaryotes depending on whether they have nuclei.
Since microbes are so small, they can colonize many environments including our bodies, which leads to health benefits as well as problems.
History of Microbes
Written evidence from India and the Roman Empire points to an awareness for the concept of microbes as far back as over two thousand years ago. This idea was further refined in Turkey and Italy over the centuries.
However, thanks to progressing work on the compound microscope, the official discovery of microbes in the mid 17th Century can be attributed to members of a scientific community known as the Royal Society, specifically Englishman Robert Hooke and Dutchman Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek. Both were able to observe and document a range of microbes in different substrates including mold.
Further scientific research into the action of microbes was subsequently conducted over the centuries, most notably by French scientist Louis Pasteur in the 19th Century. Pasteur's work led to a deeper understanding of microbial fermentation, vaccination and the eponymous process of pasteurization.
Pasteur's work led to a greater understanding of the germ theory of disease, which was advanced later that century by German microbiologist Robert Koch. Both of these scientists are considered the founders of modern microbiology.
Their discoveries led to the development of medicines, such as antibiotics, and more sanitary processes that helped to save many millions of lives.
Despite the many positive advances in the field microbiology to date, this has also had several unintended negative repercussions in the 21st Century.
For example, managing microbial contamination more effectively led to the rise of factory farming in the 1950s, which now relies on feeding vast quantities of antibiotics to animals in cramped conditions to avoid disease. Aside from welfare and sustainability considerations, this intensive system is now creating microbial resistance that threatens the effectiveness of these drugs in humans.
Similarly the overuse of antimicrobial products in the home, from hand sanitizers to cleaning products, has reduced childhood exposure to microbes, which is now conversely linked to an increase in adult allergies and asthma.
Given only 1% of microbes can invade the body and make us ill, it turns out we actually don't need to kill all the bacteria in our homes.
Finally over-prescription of antibiotics by medical professionals in many countries to treat a range of afflictions, even if they're not microbial in nature, has created pockets of endemic resistance as well as a yet unknown range of side-effects on the human microbiota.
Supporting Good Microbes
Thankfully our perception of microbes is now shifting to also encompass their benefits too.
Projects such as The American Gut Project, which published its initial findings in 2012, are helping to broaden scientific understanding of what the microbial landscape in and on our bodies, the human microbiota, looks like.
As perception has shifted towards an acceptance that we actually rely on a range of microbes to stay healthy, so too has our awareness for foods that can help maintain or boost the incidence of beneficial microbes. For example, fermented foods, which humans have been eating for millennia, are now understood to be a vital source of beneficial microbes.
When we eat fermented foods, microbes migrate through and can colonize our digestive systems (especially the lining of our guts) to support a range of vital functions as well as stave off disease. They also help break down compounds like antinutrients to make food more digestible and provide a more complete range of amino acids for our bodies to make protein.
Using these principles, eatCultured works with select natural microbes and technology to craft plant-based foods with the health and flavor benefits of fermentation locked inside. We're excited to be part of a new wave of food companies looking to work with nature to benefit the planet and ourselves too.
While our understanding of the diversity and role of microbes inside our bodies is still evolving, it's safe to say microbes are a complex field that warrant more attention and a better reputation!