Did you know that the type of bacteria that make feet smell stinky can also produce a buttery, nutty-tasting German cheese called Limburger? Cheese and other foods like coffee, chocolate, fruits and vegetables, meats, wheat, and teas get their distinctive flavors and smells from their unique “terroir.” “Terroir” means the “taste of place.” Foodies use this term to describe how a particular environment contributes to the character of the products grown there. It refers to the amazing ability of living things to absorb and magically transform the elements in their surroundings to produce the essence of flavor inside our favorite foods.
You might be surprised to discover that microorganisms play a chief role in developing the flavor, fragrance, and appearance of many culinary delicacies. The special tastiness that bacteria, molds, and fungi bring forth in our foods cannot be replicated outside of their one-of-a-kind patches of earth known, and protected in Europe, as “appellations.” For example, one of the stinkiest cheeses, Taleggio, is cave-aged and washed with saltwater, which causes special bacteria to produce a rosy rind, a smell like wet grass mixed with body odor, a creamy texture, and a tangy and meaty flavor that is also described as fruity and slightly salty. It can only be produced in Northern Italy. Nobody else can call their cheese Taleggio, even if they use the same bacteria and process to create it. This is because nobody else can recreate the singular blend of conditions found there that result in the one-and-only sensory experiences it delivers.
Too often we focus on the troubles that microbes cause us in terms of disease. The antibacterial industry makes billions of dollars off our fear of the illnesses they might cause. In response, we have spent a great deal of energy and money on destroying the microbial world around and within us. But wait! Half of our external world is made up of microbes that make beer bubbly, chocolate complex, and cheese pungent; not to mention produce, purify, and recycle our environment, make breathable air, clean our water, and convert our waste into nourishment for our crops. So, when we destroy them, we are also destroying the tiny chefs that make life’s tasty treats, like “Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis” that makes sourdough tangy and “Leuconostoc mesenteroides” that make pickles puckery.
But here is a twist! We would like to suggest that you yourself are a delightful product of a unique terroir. Because it also turns out that one in every ten cells in your body is a microbe that helps you make vitamins, use nutrients, and fight disease. The microbes and molecules in your surroundings have infiltrated your body and they determine your vitality and appeal. Your insides and outsides are a petri plate for them. Your external terroir has become your internal terroir. Whether or not you smell like Limburger cheese or something more appealing is determined by the chemicals that you and your microbial cohabitants are giving off. Your unique blend of bodily contributors makes you who you are and you should not expect to be full-bodied and vigorous without the aid of your microscopic friends who must be nurtured and protected to ensure that you also flourish.
There are scientists hard at work characterizing just what microbes should inhabit a given environment for it to be “healthy.” That includes each one of us and even distinct regions of our bodies. They are quantifying microbial profiles that contribute to obesity, autoimmune disorders, metabolic syndromes, and inflammatory diseases. They are finding that, while we are each a singular blend of microbes, chemicals, and conditions, there are some that are more common in healthy people and others common in sick people. Soon, we will have a new branch of medicine that rehabilitates our inner microbial habitat while concurrently healing the microbial ecology of our surroundings since they are so intimately connected. Scientists are learning what body chemistry is needed to properly tend our microbial gardens. It seems that refined sugar, preservatives, and processed foods support the growth of the microbes that cause disease and deplete the microbes that sustain health.
Maybe we need to start being protective about our terroir, like the European crafters who make the world’s finest foods. This requires us to be picky about the places we live, and consider them at the microbial and chemical levels as much as for their beauty and functionality. We can inoculate our inner and outer worlds with the microbes that will bring out our best smells, textures, and um flavors?
Learn more about these amazing microbes in this week’s Bio Buzz lecture: “Is it Time to be Anti-Antimicrobials?” on April 19!