Putting bacteria back into our food, one pickle at a time

For millennia, all pickles were living things, home to an invisible mass of microbes. Now they often only live in sterile vinegar - but we need to put the bacteria back, for the sake of our health.

I was recently asked to speak at a friend’s birthday celebrations. Tim being a poet, most of the other guests did a turn in verse. I, however, was asked to riff on the subject of pickles. Party catering came in the form of vinegary vegetables.
Tim, you see, is a pickle lover; before I began the research for my talk I might even have labelled him an obsessive. Then I read about America’s small but passionate “fermento” movement. Fermentos believe that pickles are the key to many modern health problems – not just any old gherkins, mind you, but proper pickles: the old-fashioned, traditionally fermented kind. The sort of pickle that’s still alive when you bite into it.
For millennia, all pickles were living things, home to an invisible mass of microbes. These microbes were responsible for transforming fresh food into something that would keep for months, even years, through fermentation.
The pickles achieved this by converting the sugars in the fresh foods to acids, creating an environment so acidic that no bacteria which were potentially more dangerous could survive. The food was thus preserved almost indefinitely. Three hundred-year-old pickled breadfruit has been found in Fiji in an edible, if not particularly attractive state. As Michael Pollan concedes in his book Cooked: a Natural History of Transformation, “the idea that the safety of a food is guaranteed by the bacteria still alive in it is a hard one for us Pasteurians to stomach”. But every culture has its own fermented speciality, often an acquired taste, because the process often produces very distinctive flavours.
It can be hard for the uninitiated to stomach Japanese natto, or fermented soybeans; the same is true of the vinegary Ethiopian injera bread. And Captain Cook fairly had to force his crew to eat sauerkraut to ward off scurvy during a 27-month voyage.
As well as the tangy cabbage they could see, Cook’s sailors would have been ingesting all manner of what is called, in probiotic food advertisements, “friendly bacteria”. Yet in the past century what is now a selling point in pricey yoghurt drinks has become the enemy in our diet as a whole.
Live yoghurt is the last refuge of the living foodstuff – most “pickles” today are in fact just soaked in sterile vinegar. Even those that are still fermented in the old way, such as kimchi and sauerkraut, are now routinely pasteurised before sale.
Fermentos (or “post- Pasteurians”) believe this fear of the microbial world is making us ill – and, though it is unlikely that yoghurt or sourdough holds the key to universal health, there is growing evidence to suggest that, mad as they sound, the fermentos may have a point.
Consider that 90 per cent of the cells in our bodies belong to microbes, many of them resident in our digestive system and most of them, if evolutionary theory is to be believed, living there for a very good reason. Though we still know relatively little about the function of the vast majority, studies suggest a diet rich in beneficial bacteria can have surprising benefits, from shortening the duration of children’s colds to relieving the symptoms of asthma and irritable bowel syndrome.
It seems that human beings need those microbes as much as they need us, yet we are still doing everything we can to kill them off. The routine use of antibiotics, and our obsession with sterilising everything in sight, from chopping boards to cheese, makes us fail to replenish the microbial crowd within, and neglect to nourish its existing residents.
Naturally, only the most deluded fermento would deny that Pasteur’s discovery saves millions of lives worldwide, but in a far more hygienic age it is no longer a universal panacea. We need to put the bacteria back, and if that means fermenting sauerkraut in the shed, then so be it. Perhaps Peter Piper was ahead of his time.
Snacking on traditionally preserved gherkins and olives can be a great thing for the gut. Image: Marcus Nilsson

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.