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An Onion a Day to Keep E. coli at Bay? 

In 2006 we learned that a fresh salad could be harmful to our health. Once only linked to meat and dairy, deadly strains of the bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) were making almost weekly appearances on the evening news as one outbreak after another sent the leafy green produce industry into freefall and the American consumer running for cover. There were three deaths attributed to E. coli 0157:H7 in this country last year. In the wake of outbreaks associated with spinach and other produce, the new Democrat-controlled Congress will be dusting off the Food Safety Act initially proposed in 2005, to assure the American public that the government is working hard to substantially reduce future food-borne outbreaks.

But will the proposed legislation make a difference? Can more government oversight in the form of additional regulations and more inspectors really protect us from future food-borne outbreaks? The answer is, unfortunately, probably not.

No amount of government oversight will ever completely remove the threat of pathogens in our food supply. According to Professor Glenn Gibson, a gut microbiologist specialist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, "There are too many contamination variables from plough to plate." Not to mention that the bad bugs have us outnumbered. Save yourself The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says we should wash our produce, cook it when we can and throw out wilted, discolored and otherwise unhealthy-looking produce. But is there more we as consumers can do to protect ourselves and our families from these potentially deadly pathogens? Said differently, where do we draw the line between personal responsibility and the role of government and industry in protecting us from these pathogens?

As a society, we have come to accept, actually expect, that "the government" is responsible for keeping germs out of our food. It is — thanks to very successful oversight of the meat industry — the government after all that has made those products safer. However, the reality is that much of our success in fighting the deadly pathogens hitching a ride on our steaks and hamburgers has been the nearly universal practice of thoroughly cooking meat in our homes. In other words, personal responsibility is a biological imperative when it comes to protecting our health.

The well-intended legislation being proposed will probably fall short of anything meaningful, as its patrons most certainly fail to understand the basic evolutionary rules of the germ warfare raging in the American gut and the bigger challenges facing the populace in this biological arms race.

As executives of the produce industry hit hardest by the illness and deaths attributed to strains of E. coli in 2006 brace for a possible onslaught of new regulations and additional inspectors trudging about their fields and packaging plants, they need only look out to the fields beyond their office windows to see a better solution to what ails them and the American public.

Among the lush greens, yellows and reds of the American produce landscape, lies a simple but critical component to our evolutionary success as a species and the best defense we have ever had — or will likely ever have — against E. coli and the assortment of pathogens that seek to do us harm. The simple defense to be found amid these fields is good old dietary fiber, and this is where the personal responsibility comes into play. Evolutionary hitchikers As you read this, there are trillions of tiny microbes (including billions of harmless strains of E. coli) living throughout your continuous gastrointestinal tract. These tiny evolutionary hitchhikers have been with you every minute of every day from the moment you entered this world and will be so until you die. And then they will eat you. But that's the good news.

The bad news is that our so-called modern diet of highly processed, fiber-poor grains, in addition to added sugars and fats, is literally starving our "friendly" bacteria and putting us at increased risk. The friendly bacteria in our bodies are the first line of defense against invading pathogens, such as E. coli. Like any good soldier, they require nutrients to fight the good fight, and dietary fiber is an important part of that nutrient base.

Simply stated: Fiber is not just food for us; it's food for bacteria that live within us.

Our not-so-distant ancestors regularly consumed between 50 and 100 grams of dietary fiber from diverse sources every day. This is the nutritional reality upon which our modern genome was selected and the symbiotic relationship upon which the trillions of bacteria in our gut evolved to depend. However, the average American today consumes about 12 to 15 grams a day — roughly half of what the government recommends and only a fraction of what our gut bugs need in order to provide optimal resistance to infection and disease caused by the steady stream of pathogenic bacteria and viruses that enter our gut every day.

While a cleaner and safer food supply has allowed our species to maintain mammalian dominance, we must not lose sight of the delicate nutritional requirements of our friendly gut bugs and the indispensable role they play in our tenuous existence on this microbe-dominated planet.

The health implications of our staggering drop in consumption of dietary fiber has opened the door to E. coli 0157:H7 and its band of pathogenic brothers who make millions of people sick every year, sending hundreds of thousands to emergency rooms with severe diarrhea, intestinal cramping and fever. Fiber and Congress The important symbiotic relationship we share with our friendly microbes and their role in our natural resistance to infection should be taking center stage in the upcoming congressional hearings on how best to protect people from the inevitable food-borne pathogens associated with produce, and specifically, how to deal with this monster E. coli 0157:H7.

The recent outbreaks have understandably made the American public skittish, not only about spinach and other produce tainted with E. coli 0157:H7, but also about produce in general. Ironically, and perhaps tragically, this may pave the way for an additional decrease of fiber in the American diet, resulting in poorer gut health and reduced ability to resist infectious agents.

The media attention given to E. coli 0157:H7 in 2006 has once again raised the awareness of deadly pathogens in our environment. This may be an opportunity, though tragic in its realization, for industry and the government to highlight the importance of increasing fiber intake via fruits and vegetables. Current government health messages to do so have had little success. Maybe it's time to change the message.

For E. coli 0157:H7 specifically, stimulating the growth of a group of healthy bacteria in the human gut known as bifidobacterium by consuming special prebiotic dietary fibers known as oligosaccharides — found in plants such as onions, leeks, garlic, chicory and artichokes — can fortify our natural resistance.

Many will recognize the names bifidobacterium and lactobacillus as they are often added to yogurts as probiotics. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a yogurt that does not contain prebiotic cultures. The idea behind probiotics is to replenish your body's supply of healthy bacteria. However, it's important to remember that the prebiotic strains already exist in your gut. Just feed them more dietary fiber, and they will grow. And if you specifically eat more prebiotic dietary fiber, you can "selectively" stimulate the growth of bifidobacterium to boost your natural resistance to pathogens such as deadly strains of E. coli.

Bifidobacteria exert powerful effects against pathogens through competition for colonization sites and nutrients in the gut, acid excretion and antimicrobial substances. If properly fed and stimulated, these bacteria will do their evolutionary job and make life a living hell for invading pathogens.

A steady stream of scientific studies has shown that just 8 to 12 grams a day of prebiotic fiber can elevate the protective bifidobacterium levels in the human gut in a matter of days. My company, New Orleans-based Intelligent Nutrition, LLC (www.smartfiberstixx.com), recently started offering prebiotic dietary fiber extracted naturally from chicory roots (also known scientifically as inulin) as a supplement.

Interestingly, bifidobacterium dominate the gut of breast-fed babies, but are known to decrease significantly as people get older. This may explain why even though a number of age groups were sickened during the 2006 outbreaks, two out of three of the deaths were elderly women. The third was a 2-year-old boy. A similar pattern was seen in a deadly outbreak in Scotland in 1986 that affected hundreds and killed 20. All deaths were among the elderly.

At a time when researchers have finally acknowledged that nearly 20 percent of all cancers (cervical cancer, some stomach cancers and liver cancer, for example) are caused by infection — up from zero just a few decades ago — and with hints that infection may play a causal role in such big-time killers as breast cancer and atherosclerosis, it may be time to ask who or what opened the door for these pathogens.

Ignorance of evolutionary biology and the nutritional landscape upon which humans and our microbes evolved should not preclude lawmakers and industry leaders from exploring the role of dietary fiber in reducing human casualties in this evolutionary arms race. Continuing to ignore this simple and easy-to-implement strategy can only result in further human suffering.

I, for one, will have a salad tonight.

Jeff D. Leach is a science writer, health advocate and co-founder of the recently formed International Fiber Council.

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