Where's the Beef? Ask the Bugs

Has the food information revolution begun?

Posted May 23, 2013

An Unknown, Very Old Partner 

It’s not the beef you eat that matters – it’s the bugs.

A group of researchers fed lean beef (nicely cooked) to a bunch of everyday meat eaters and vegans.

Did ingesting lean beef change lipid levels in the blood – you know, the stuff supposed to cause heart disease, stroke, and generally kill you? Not all that much.

But the beef contained lots of carnitine (carnem – latin for meat), often used as an “herbal” supplement. The gut bacteria in the meat eaters transformed carnitine into TMAO. TMAO is considered a very bad actor in atherogenesis – plaque formation and hardening of the arteries.

Yet the habitual meat eaters produced a whole lot more TMAO than the vegans. The vegans lacked the “right” bacteria to convert carnitine into TMAO.

Bacteria change meat into innumerable information chemicals. Eat meat and you change your bacteria. You then get more of the same bacteria. Those bugs then convert your food into at least one presumed arterial clogger.

Within a few weeks, a different group of researchers found the same results with eggs.

As we have learned over the last few years, when it comes to food, bacteria rule. Those 100 trillion critters do far more than digest food and make vitamins, environmental gas and usefully smooth effluent.

What bacteria really prove is a fact people should belatedly recognize – that the body is a giant information system/ecosystem. Inside it, food as information is transformed in millions of ways.

Does This Explain Why Meat Eaters Have More Atherosclerosis?

No. It just adds another potential cause.

There are plenty of new ones waiting in the pipeline. After all, every time you eat an animal or plant, you eat its genetic material.

Last year scientists in Nanjing found that humans absorb the micro-RNAs of plants. Some, like those from rice, increase cholesterol synthesis.

Eat rice, ingest RNA, change gene expression, create more cholesterol.

Who knew? There lots of other things we don’t know but probably will – maybe even soon (see below).

What Are the Implications For Nutrition?

1. That looking at food as collections of protein, carbohydrates, and fats may be useful for nutritionists, food companies and school lunch committees, but remains hopelessly simplistic.

Foods contain thousands of other substances and chemicals which have not been characterized or simply investigated through time. Many of these substances have strong physiologic, even drug effects.

What our 100 trillion bacteria do to them matters greatly. And what also matters is just what populations of bacteria inhabit you when you ingest that food – rather like which countries hold what territory on a map.

Many other factors change how you transform the food inside you. They include your level of physical activity,  how and when you rest, how and when you eat, the size of your plates, the wall color of restaurants, etc. Most people don’t think that people given the same meal in a red room will eat one third more of the same meal than in a blue. But they do.

Food is complicated information – especially when it’s fun to eat.

Implications for Supplements

We know hardly anything about what supplements really do. Marketing mavens and sociable lobbyists have managed to pay off enough politicians and emasculate agencies. They've helped make certain that supplements are lightly regulated and investigated. That allows them to be sold everywhere and to anyone – no matter what their age.

Much supplement marketing “demonstrates” they provide remarkable benefits - thicker hair, weight loss, sudden energy, improved love making, increased attractiveness, and long life. However, most of the time the proof is inversely related to the breadth of the claims.

Carnitine is beloved of weight lifters. It’s also sold to lose weight and prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Do not expect supplement makers to actively market its supposed potential for causing heart attack and stroke.

Which, honestly, is merely a hypothesis at this point. Like a lot of other things about supplements, no one knows what they really do. It’s possible that in the end carnitine might benefit some heart patients.

But what you don’t know may do harm.

The Implications For the Biome

Bacteria are powerful. We live with them – lots of them. Many of our genes are similar to theirs – or come from them. They change our food, produce vital resources, shift our immunity, and possess the potential to kill us - quickly.

It’s time we paid great attention to this large, non-voting population. Now implicated in autism, MS, atherosclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and America’s media public health enemy # 1 – too much weight - our individual, local bacteria may make or break us.

Except we don’t know how they do it.

Implications for the Food Industry

Food is about more than taste. It’s about health and health policy.

Survival, in fact. Including global environmental survival.

Bacteria don’t just affect disease. I expect it will be discovered they affect taste. They may, in time, be found to profoundly affect what we do and do not want to eat.

Chefs need to start seriously checking out the biome.

Implications for Health

The human body is a constantly regenerating information system. You are constantly remade.

Understanding that food is a form of information gets rid of a lot of domain specific academic and media hooey.

If you see every food as containing hundreds to thousands of information molecules, all of which change human and non-human physiology, lots of things begin to make sense. Some might stop obsessing about counting calories and start watching what food actually does to you – to your genes, your brain, your heart, your pleasures, pain, and future survival. You might then get food out of the nutritional science ghetto and return it to its rightful place – as central to life.

You can also start explaining things that have hitherto proven very confusing.

Food is love. Food is pleasure. Food is energy. Food is fuel.

Food is a metabolic substrate for gut bacteria that transforms it into innumerable subtances that vastly affect individual physiology and your health.

Food is information.