This rant begins in that most evil, but for me, in my encroaching decrepitude, useful public spaces, "the fitness center." Here, I see everyone in caricature and am misanthropic to my core. For years I simply ran to burn up calories and clear the head, but an essay by the magnificent Sherwin Nuland, surgeon-author, convinced me that if I didn’t lift weights, I would become feeble. So I began lifting weights a couple months ago after a decade away from Nautilus machines. Everything looked the same but for one serious change: all the machines have a bottle of disinfectant on them. What’s with this? In fact there are spray bottles all over the place. I am supposed to give each machine I use a disinfectant bath, a biohazard washdown if I even look at. Most people I watch seem to spend as much time wiping down the machines as they do actually using them. If this were some kind of nude fitness center I could see the point, but most of the people who use these machines do not visibly sweat and are dressed from head to toe in clean dry clothing, normal humans desultorily fending of the inexorable decay. What on earth are people afraid of catching? When did we become such germophopes?
Yet another facet of America’s many neuroses about food, health and our bodies is a fear of germs and a complete misunderstanding of bacteria and good and bad microbes. The shelves are filled with anti-bacterial soaps. People are actually afraid to use the greatest cutting surface available, wood, for fear that it's a secret petri dish for deadly microbes. Home cooks cook pork till it’s dry, chicken till it’s dessicated fearing pathogens, but think nothing of using a smelly sponge (if you're looking for the petri dish, that's it–why do you think it smells? There's a reason we have noses! Use them.)
This fear is certainly not keeping us from getting sick, and it’s very likely increasing the probability that we will. All this came to mind after reading Jane Brody’s Personal Health column, in which she describes the benefits of eating dirt the day I went to the "fitness center." Not the three-star dirt that I’ve written about, but actual backyard dirt.
In the column, Brody suggests that there may be evolutionary advantages to allowing all kinds of microbes and worms into our bodies via dirty fingers or food in that they encourage our bodies to develop a vigorous immune system. By fearing germs and bacteria, by being fanatically dirt phobic, buying up all those anti-bacterial soaps and hosing down our kitchens with bleach three times a day, we make ourselves weaker.
Brody suggests this may be why MS, Type 1 Diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and allergies are on the rise in developed countries.
Of course there are real dangers from microbes— E. coli, salmonella, listeria can make people really sick. But you need to know when to account for them to prevent their growth (with help from McGee, I wrote a concise description of bacteria and their prevention in Sous Vide). It’s not very complicated and mainly a matter of common sense.
But all these immune disorders. All these allergies to foods that kids have today. When I was growing up, I never heard of a kid who couldn’t eat peanut butter. Now, I have close friends whose two boys are seriously allergic to so many foods, cooking a single dinner for all of them is near impossible. This is not another America-is-a-bunch-of-picky-eaters rant—the kids’ allergies are real. Ming Tsai, a chef, has such kids and has become a huge spokesman for understanding and working with these allergies.
But when did they begin and why? My guess is that they began around the time their parents began to consume vast quantities of industrial, processed foods. Sterile food. Food that can sit on a shelf for a lifetime. Food that is not even biodegradable. Did you watch the extras on the Super Size Me DVD? The McD’s fries would not grow mold, would not break down. Ever.
In order to keep foods on the shelf indefinitely requires getting rid of bacteria that causes spoilage. But in keeping our food ultra sterile, we may be killing microbes that help to keep us healthy and fit.
Yet another reason to eat unprocessed foods, natural foods, a lot of fruits and vegetables. Wash them, of course, but don’t sterilize them. We aren’t getting more healthy by eating processed food, we’re getting more sick. I’ll bet the microbes we're not getting when we do is one of the reasons. Every day your kids come home from school, make them wash their hands. You don’t want everyone in the house catching colds. But let’s be reasonable. The label “anti-bacterial” is a marketing gimmick created to respond to our irrational and harmful fear of bacteria.