Potlucks: Germaphobe Nightmare or Health-Boosting Opportunity?

According to a recent article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, “There’s a case for dirtying up your diet” in order to increase your exposure to bacteria. Really? More germs, not fewer? Yes! More germs, please, according to the article, “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs.” 

And potluck dinners might be just what the immune system ordered.
Since the introduction of antibiotics, we’ve been on a mission to kill bacteria. Cleanliness, next to Godliness and all that. But the photo on the cover of the Times Magazine’s May 19th issue calls all that cleanliness into question: picture a chubby, healthy, drooling baby nested between the paws of the family dog who is licking drool from the baby’s cheek and lips, introducing the baby to germs and adding to the gut culture that will activate the baby’s immune system now, and for a lifetime to come.
The Pollan article advocates a new appreciation for the bacteria that lives in our gut. Pollan calls this collection of living gut residents our microbiome, or our “second genome,” and explains how these gastrointestinal hitchhikers exert influence as great or greater than the genes we inherit by triggering expression of strengths and weaknesses in our DNA. This mix of microbes activates our immune system, modulates our metabolism, even balances enzymes responsible for mental well-being.
What I took from this interesting read was that taking hygiene to the max may actually limit the ability of the immune system to keep us healthy. Instead, we should aim for just enough exposure to bacteria to keep our immune systems engaged and strong. Additionally, we should be aware of the limiting effects of exposure to antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizers, antibiotics, various food additives and preservatives; these protective products come with a price tag. So we need to weigh the pros and cons of hygiene and consider the point of diminishing returns for our own unique health vulnerabilities. 
Similar thinking about germs is popping up in my reading in many unexpected places. In The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things by Larry Dossey, MD, a chapter entitled “Dirt” cites a litany of research on beneficial results of exposure to dirt, dirty water, sick siblings, and childhood illnesses – correlating with various reduced incidence of asthma, hay fever, eczema, and even MS, mononucleosis, and other auto-immune disorders. 
“All diseases begin in the gut,” per Hippocrates, 460-370 BC. This lead quote in Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride MD, draws lines between gastrointestinal dysfunction and various little-understood neurologic and autoimmune diseases, including autism. These were interesting perspectives I hadn’t heard before.
Over the past several decades our preoccupation with the hazards of germs has resulted in debates over the communal communion cup in churches and the introduction of entire industries dedicated to antiseptic, antibacterial, sanitizing, and disposable products tailored to our fear of germs: DuPont’s Cellophane claimed protection against the deadly dangers of flies, fingers, and food; Listerine antiseptic promised to protect against halitosis as well as “the 17 diseases carried by the hands”; paper and plastic cups, plates, utensils, and containers offer safe harbor from the residue of other people’s saliva.
The proactive power of potluck 
A couple years back, I went through the food safety training necessary to become a state licensed retail food producer and Certified Food ManagerI took the training in hopes I could mentor small value-added start-up food businesses that might develop food items to offer for sale at Lanesboro Local Marketplace in Lanesboro, Minnesota. I learned about all the potential food pathogens, the temperature tolerances and food handling practices that minimize pathogen risk, basic sanitation protocols and products, and more. As a result, I’m more acutely aware than ever of kitchen infractions that invite contamination and bacterial growth. 
Already a bit of a germaphobe, this training cranked up my reflex to cringe when a friend tasted her potluck dish, added salt, then thrust the tasting spoon back in and gave it a stir. Or licked a finger in the middle of a dishing-up task. 
But with the nudge from Pollan and other nutrition-focused advocates and researchers, I’m trying to think outside the Pandora’s box of the pervasive germ pool. I’ve begun to think of potluck dinners as social occasions that not only offer ideal opportunities to learn from other creative cooks, but also to get a gentle health boost. I consider every dip of the finger and lick of the communal spoon a small gift that may arm my gut and activate my immune response against some virus or malady I may now never get. 
So, a grateful shout out to all the cooks who’ve licked a finger or otherwise shared your microbiota – and that of your various family members and circle of friends – with me, my family and everyone everywhere who gathers to break bread.  


So, what is your thinking on germs?
I like to consider viewpoints from all corners of the food system and consider food issues a little differently every time I read new information. So many approaches to health seem plausible. 

Maybe I’ll feel differently about germs at some point in the future. A recent cautionary piece I read stated that one in five of us have compromised immune systems and really need the standards of anti-bacterial hygiene to be held high.


I’m wondering about your take on germs. What do you know that can add to this discussion? Please share your approach to maintaining the health of your gut. 



Kitty Baker grew up on a mixed ag farm, then in a small town, near Rochester, MN. She and husband Keith raised two daughters, living in Kansas City and Minneapolis. A professional writer, Kitty enjoys topics of lifestyle and food, especially since 1999, when they bought a farm, Root River Wilds, just north of Lanesboro, MN. The farm’s spectacularly varied acreage -- bluffs and woods, pastures and restored prairies cut with trails and wrapped in the oxbow of the North Branch of the Root River -- is rich with opportunities to discover and share ways to live abundantly. Her last article for SGT was: Intuitive Eating: What Do You Hunger For?


Hmmm. Very interesting. Now I have an excuse for my lax tasting methods while I cook! On the other hand I am terrified of contamination from industrial chickens and beef and eggs. Best to buy small scale and local. Or grow your own, like you do.

I love this perspective on germs Kitty. It takes me back to a time before, not just sanitizer and anti-biotics, but running water. People seemed to find a way to survive. I was just out camping and the outhouse had a huge bottle of sanitizer in it. I started to wonder what folks did in the past when out in the wilderness or without the convenience of running water (to this day I still carry soap with me so I can avoid those sanitizers). Not all succumbed to disease. My curiosity leads me to wonder if we've lost most of the knowledge about how to actually protect ourselves from disease and infection. I'd love to think we can find a healthy balance between inaction and over reaction.

Take kids for instance. One of the first things they learn to do is to stick stuff in their mouth. Over reaction = Take everything away and they don't learn much about their world, motor skills and perhaps an opportunity to introduce new bacteria to their flora. Inaction = eating things that could actually kill them. We have to find a balanced path right in the middle.

Like everything, germs have their place and those places have their degreesof OK-ness. Had your potluck partner had a mouth sore, I'd have questionedthe wisdom and responsibility of her taste-testing methods! But even beforean ever-expanding body of literature linking our immune system to ouraseptic lives, I'm happy to dispense with that extra spoon that no one hadgenerations ago and here we are to talk about it - around a table together.And that's before considering the chemicals, corporate manipulation, andfalse economy of all those products in all that plastic, ggrrr.

Caroline: I agree, absolutely. It is pure common sense, and common courtesy,
not to share known pathogens. It's the beneficial bacteria that we can relax
about. I found it interesting to think about the flora of gut in a similar
way as I think about the diveristy of plants and animals in the wild -- we
need to guard against extinctions of organisms that benefit our health.
Killing every germ may do as much harm as good.

Lawrence,  Exactly! Balance. We strive to reach that optimal point of
diminishing returns. But when do we assess, readjust our goal, and avoid
swinging the pendulum from the initial point of dis-ease to an opposite
extreme of dis-ease? Thanks for your comment. Discovering that turning point
when doing more of the same yeilds less reward -- whether in relation to the
food system, farm practices, health care, etc. -- it's a topic I find
important and complicated.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <cite> <ul> <ol> <li> <p> <b> <em>
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.