Would you like a bit of dirt with your salad?

Sheryl Nadler
Shine On
June 29, 2012

Embarrassed you've employed the 10-second rule and eaten something that's fallen on the ground? Don't be. At least one outspoken science writer says a little bit of dirt in our diets can be a good thing.

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times and in a CBC interview with Jian Ghomeshi, Jeff Leach says our diets and, in fact, our lives, have become so sanitized — our greens are triple-washed, our carrots are scrubbed clean, we bathe several times a day — we're at the point where our immune systems have been compromised and are less able to combat bacteria.

"Increasing evidence suggests that the alarming rise in allergic and autoimmune disorders during the past few decades is at least partly attributable to our lack of exposure to microorganisms that once covered our food and us," he writes.

Also see: California bans foie gras: Does the government have the right to tell you what to eat?

Farmers' markets might save us, he says. Carrots covered in soil, dirty lettuce and tomatoes with the ground still encrusted on its stems might help replace the missing microorganisms he claims we so sorely need in our diet.

Theresa Albert, a Toronto-based nutritionist and founder of MyFriendInFood.com, couldn't agree with Leach's theory more. Particularly, when it comes to bacteria most of us tend to avoid, like listeria.

"A healthy immune system can kill its own bacteria," she says. "Listeria is ubiquitous — it's everywhere. It's on the steering wheel, it's on your cell phone, it's everywhere. Most of us can kill it if we have good gut bacteria, if we have healthy immune systems and good acid in our stomachs."

Also see: Would you pay more for a hard-to-pronounce wine? A new study says yes

Albert says stomach acid is our first line of defense for fighting off bacteria like listeria. But when people take acid reducers, it weakens their ability to fight the bacteria that is on everything and everywhere.

"Germs on your apple, listeria on your hot dog, the body recognizes it and sends out fighter cells to kill it," she explains. "As soon as it's done that, it's learned. So it's like building a new muscle or learning to dance. It's a body memory. The body learns to kill these bacteria if it's treated well and if it's exposed to them."

A big fan of the ten-second rule, Albert is also a big believer in leaving some of the dirt you'll find on those farmers' market carrots — dirt that contains microbes which help to build good bacteria in our guts. And it has additional benefits, too, she says.

"Soil and the worm casings in that soil, for instance, have B12 that would help a vegan. Because a vegan won't be getting B12 from meat, they don't eat the meat."

Watch the video below for a great yellow tomato salad recipe.

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