Canning – Gut Instincts Part 3

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Jam and jelly made without a water bath.

Jam and jelly made without a water bath.

(If you haven’t already, you might want to read parts 1 and 2 before you tackle this)
You’re full of it (or rather, them) – bacteria. Your body is covered and simply loaded with bacteria, most of which are beneficial and exist with us in a state of symbiosis (meaning both we and the bacteria get something out of the relationship). A lot of these bacteria, as in tens of trillions and at least 1,000 different species, are in your gut. People also have similar colonies in deep layers of the skin, the mouth, lungs and places like the bladder or vagina.
The gut bacteria play a vital role in your immune system function. For one thing, they “talk” to the immune system through the exchange of chemical signals and “teach” the immune system which bugs are the nasty ones. The bacteria also stimulate lymph tissue, which helps it produce antibodies for pathogens (disease-causing organisms). There’s some indication that gut bacteria may play a role in preventing autoimmune diseases, which include conditions like Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Your gut microbiome is nearly as individual as a fingerprint. About two thirds of the gut bacteria are specific to you, while the remainder are common to most people. In addition to its immune system effects, the gut microbiome helps the body digest certain foods, enables the production of vitamins B and K, and promotes proper digestive functioning. You aren’t born with a microbiome. Babies’ guts are sterile and colonized after birth by microorganisms from mom’s vagina, feces, skin, breast and breast milk. Babies born by Caesarian section or fed formula have very different microbiomes compared to those delivered vaginally and breastfed. By age three, a baby’s microbiome is relatively stable, although it continues to evolve to some degree throughout life.
Yes, you are what you eat, especially when it comes to the gut microbiome, and even more especially if we stretch “eating” to include taking medicines like antibiotics. Antibiotics kill the beneficial microbes in the gut, which allows the “bad” bacteria or fungi to take over. Prebiotics are foods — mostly indigestible fiber — that feed beneficial gut bacteria. Garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, tomatoes, bananas, plums, apples, whole grains and nuts all contain prebiotics, as do leafy greens like kale. Probiotics are fermentations of food, like yogurt, that contain beneficial bacteria that are the same or similar to what lives in our guts. You can also get probiotics in supplement form.
So, how does this relate to canning and food safety? It’s pretty simple, really — these beneficial bacteria are found in the external environment: in the soil, water, plants, humans and animals with which we co-exist. In order to get them in our systems, we have to come in contact with them. If we live in a sterile environment and eat food that has been cooked to death, the gut microbiome suffers. Pasteurizing milk or cooking fermented foods kills the beneficial bacteria, along with any “baddies” that might be present. A healthy gut microbiome will help us maintain a balance of organisms. Canning and food safety is a matter of the basics, not over-processing foods until they’re sterile.
Far be it from me to tell you what to do, but you may find all of these posts useful information, and if you’re interested, here’s what I do when it comes to canning/food preservation safety and immune system support:
1. I freeze meat, vegetables and many fruits.
2. I can some things, like applesauce and grape juice, and do I waterbath these, using the directions in Putting Foods By. My copy was produced in the late 1990s, but I know plenty of people who are canning successfully with books produced in the 1970s or earlier. I rarely use pressure canning.
3. I ferment a variety of vegetables and keep them in cold storage after the first couple of weeks. They typically last for a year if not eaten before then. These fermentations include pickles (summer squash and cucumbers in particular, with the addition of onions and garlic) as well as beets, carrots, peppers and zucchini relish.
4. I store potatoes, onions, garlic, apples, pears and winter squash in the proper conditions.
6. I leave things like chard and other leafy greens, green onions, carrots and beets in the ground until ready to eat them. If I run out of garden space, I’ll either freeze or ferment them.
5. I drink raw milk and make raw milk cheese, yogurt, buttermilk, cream cheese and butter.
6. I support my immune system with the above foods, adequate sleep, stress management and regular exercise.
7. During flu season, I usually take something like elderberry or blackberry syrup once a day; good immune system booster. I don’t get a flu shot.
8. If I do catch a cold, I let it run its course, take herbal medicines like horehound cough syrup and make sure I get plenty of rest and fluids.
9. I don’t use any kind of antibacterial or antiseptic cleaners. For that matter, I don’t use commercial cleaning concoctions, with the exception of oven cleaner about once a year and a citrus-based cleaner called Awwsome Orange for really tough, greasy jobs (and since I recently found a recipe to make my own, as soon as I try it, this one may go down the pike). I keep a spray bottle with an ammonia/dish soap/water mix to spray for surface cleaning, use vinegar spray for mold, and baking soda and vinegar to clean drains and carpets.
10. Although I do wash my hands regularly, I’m not a fanatic about it. Hand washing may help get rid of surface bacteria, but it also strips the skin of natural protective oils and increases the risk of breaks in the skin that can allow nasty bugs to gain a foothold. That’s particularly important for someone like moi, who regularly has her hands in dirt, plays with critters and poultry, and never seems to be able to keep her fingernails clean for more than five minutes. As soon as I dry my hands, I apply home-made hand cream, usually with infused calendula oil added to protect the skin.
The bottom line in this discussion is that your gut is trying to tell you something: don’t worry so much about the teeny-tiny details a researcher in a lab obsesses over. Listen to your gut (there’s a reason it’s call a gut instinct!). Feed your microbiome well, follow the basics of cleanliness and use your common sense. If what you’re doing has worked for 30 or 40 years, and worked for mom and grandma before you, odds are pretty high it’s safe.

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