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Food Quality and Soil Health; Response (fwd)

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sat, 22 Mar 1997 11:14:23 -0500
From: Charles Benbrook <benbrook@hillnet.com>
To: sanet-mg@amani.ces.ncsu.edu
Subject: Food Quality and Soil Health; Response

        I appreciate Chris Alenson's post of 3/20 re "Food Quality -- A
Matter of Taste!"  I have no way to prove it, but am certain that the
complexity of a crop's growth process has to be reflected in the richness
and complexity of its taste.  Having just attended Willie's conference and
heard lots of related papers, I had a few others ideas and questions that I
pass along for anyone to reflect on.

        We have learned there is more to soil fertility than supplying
enough N-P-K, and that the heart of soil quality is microbial biodiversity
and activity, as it relates to the N pool, soil structure, root development,
and microbial biocontrol of soil pathogens.  I takes biological activity in
the root zone for the complex communications to occur between soil
pathogens, roots, plant immune systems, root exudates, leading to the
outcome of a healthy balance in the cropping system.  Pathogens persist, but
do not overwhelm; roots develop, are attacked, but plants overcome.

        Then, listening to all the nutrition experts at the Tufts conference
generally report a lack of evidence of major differences in the "quality" of
food as measured by protein, vitamins, minerals -- the "N-P-K" of the
dietary world -- got me to thinking.  The human gut is a complex,
microbial-dominated ecosystem.  The activity of microorganisms in the gut
plays a vital role in nutrition because it both determines the
bioavailability of various nutrients/minerals, as well as the capacity of
the body to deal with various pathogens, carcinogens, mycotoxins, and other
poisons we consume in small quantities, everyday. I suspect processes in the
gut are also critical in the proper triggering of human immune response to
various threats that first enter the body through food and water.  

        Most compounds that trigger hormonal secretions and govern the
physiology of the body's basic systems -- day to day respiration, energy
metabolism, reproduction and growth, immune response -- are
controlled/triggered/regulated by complex protein compounds formed around a
mineral base, often iron or zinc.  These compounds are called
"metalloregulatory compounds," and happen to be structurally similar often
in soil and in mammals.  There was a great special issue of Science focusing
on "Bioinorganic Chemistry" with articles on metalloproteins,
metalloenzymes, etc).  An article in the issue (Vol. 261, Aug. 6, 1993, page
715) is entitled "Transition Metals in Control of Gene Expression," and
describes the role of metals, and complex proteins built around them, in
governing the biochemistry and function of the cell, which in turn governs
the response to changes in the environment, in food, in disease response,
etc.  I highly recommend this series of articles to people wanting to delve
more deeply into what may be going on with organic systems, food
bioavailability, and nutrition/health, and even taste.  One of the basic
findings across many areas of research discussed in this series of articles
is that one of the things that go "wrong" in plant and animal systems is a
temporary lack of iron, zinc or other "hub" compounds around which organisms
build their metalloregulatory compounds.  This is the functional equivalent
of not having the building blocks accessible to create enough "on-switches"
for the immune system, for example, when a person gets a big dose of a
microbial contaminant like salmonella, or exposed to a flu bug, and needs to
KICK IN NOW the immune response, to avoid a case of the you know what.  

        So imagine what a basic, homogenized, highly processed, highly
sweetened, narrow and biologically "near-dead" diet does to the microflora
of the gut?  About the same as hot N-P-K fertilizers do to the soil, I
suspect.  In the gut, this would lead to a lack of efficient capacity to
extract iron/zinc where it may be bound in the diet, i.e. these minerals
pass through the body unabsorbed to some degree, dampening the body's
ability to turn on various systems and responses when it has a signal to do so. 

        Which leads to a number of intriguing questions -- in doing tests of
the nutritional/health advantages of organically produced food, maybe we
need to test different cohorts -- one people who have eaten "conventional"
diets for a long time; another who have eaten more "natural" and
biologically active diets, with lots of food grown in alive soil.  Wonder if
we would learn it is not just what is in the food, but how people are able
to use it.

        Which gets us back to flavor.  I also suspect that a persons ability
to experience flavors is a function, to some degree of the "gas
chromatograph" in their throat, for lack of a more accurate term.  I know
absolutely nothing about the physiology of taste, but suspect that what is
going on in the body's juices, particularly saliva, is going to make a
difference re what flavors jump out at a person, and which remain subtle, or
not detected.

        Looking forward to any reflections; we will post the substantive
items in this thread on the PMAC web page.


Charles Benbrook                         202-546-5089 (voice)
Benbrook Consulting Services             202-546-5028  (fax)
409 First Street S.E.                    benbrook@hillnet.com   [e-mail]
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