Food Poisoning. Nearly all of us have experienced it, and if we haven’t, we fear it. A brush with food poisoning can ruin a dish for you forever. It can cause some of us to scrub every square inch of the kitchen in an attempt to get rid of any harmful critters associated with handling raw food.But what exactly is the illness we call food poisoning, and what does it do to your gut?
Food Poisoning: The nuts and bolts
Food poisoning can be defined as any illness or disease that results from eating contaminated food. Estimates quantify food poisoning to affect 1 in 6 Americans annually. The most common cause of food poisoning is a group of bacteria and viruses called foodborne pathogens.
These pathogens can cause illness Foodborne pathogens in two ways .
- They are ingested with the food itself and subsequently establish themselves in the host (us!). This is called a foodborne infection.
- They multiply within the food first and produce certain harmful toxins that are consumed, causing illness classified as foodborne intoxication.
Food poisoning can also be caused by parasites, molds, toxins, contaminants, and certain allergens.
The culprits of food poisoning are typically associated with specific foods, and most are animal products. Each type of food poisoning has its own incubation period (how long it takes before you start to feel sick) and duration of illness. We’ve compiled a list of some of the most common ones to look out for.
This species of bacteria can be found on the skin and skin glands of birds and other mammals (including humans) and within the internal organs of infected hosts. If people don’t use proper food safety procedures (handwashing), it can spread to food items. The bacteria multiply within the food, producing toxins that cause illness. These toxins are not destroyed by cooking and are typically found within foods not cooked after handling, like sliced meats, puddings, pastries, and sandwiches.
Salmonella species live within the intestines of most livestock and many wild animals. These bacteria cause direct foodborne infection when ingested. Though this pathogen is typically associated with eating raw egg (I see you, cookie dough lovers!) a variety of foods can harbor the bacteria, including vegetables, chicken, pork, fruits, nuts, eggs, beef, and sprouts.
Several clostridia species can cause foodborne illness, the most common being Clostridium perfringens. These bacteria, like Staphylococcus aureus, make us ill via their toxin production . Outbreaks caused by Clostridium perfringens are in most cases quite large and are caused by poor food product handling at farms, restaurants, and catering facilities. The foodborne intoxication caused by these bacteria is associated with consumption of beef, poultry, gravies, food left for long periods in steam tables or at room temperature, and time and/or temperature abused foods.
These species of bacteria inhabit the gut microbiome of many healthy domestic and wild animals, a few being dogs, poultry, and cattle. However, eating food products contaminated with these microbes can cause foodborne infections. Common sources consist of unpasteurized (raw) milk, chicken, shellfish, turkey, contaminated water.
Though rare, Listeria monocytogenes are ubiquitous throughout the species’ environment and appear in ecological systems such as decaying vegetable matter, sewage, water, and soil. The bacteria cause a foodborne infection with a relatively high mortality rate (20-30%) , making it one of the most deadly forms of food poisoning. Common food-based sources of this bacteria include unpasteurized (raw) milk and dairy products, raw fruits and vegetables, ready-to-eat deli meats and hot dogs, refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads, or refrigerated smoked seafood.
Some pathogenic bacterial species belonging to the Vibrio genus live in brackish marine environments in tropical or temperate regions. These bacteria can cause foodborne infection when ingested via raw or undercooked shellfish, chiefly oysters. Food poisoning is not the smoothest aphrodisiac -- be careful!
Located throughout the environment, these bacteria produce spores that can be particularly pesky to remove during cleaning and sanitation due to their hydrophobic quality (nonpolar). These spores produce toxins that can cause foodborne intoxication when consumed. Sources of this form of food poisoning comprise a variety of foods, particularly rice and leftovers, as well as sauces, soups, and other prepared foods that have sat out too long at room temperature.
Commonly known as E. coli, most strains of these bacteria are harmless, but some produce pathogenic toxins. Transmission occurs through the consumption of contaminated food or water that contains waste from infected animals or humans. Contaminated food, especially undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized (raw) milk and juice, soft cheeses, and raw fruits and vegetables (such as lettuce, other leafy greens, and sprouts) are linked to E. Coli foodborne intoxication.
Like many other virus-related illnesses, Norovirus infection is typically caused by the ingestion of waste matter from infected hosts. However, the viruses can remain on surfaces and food items, making prevention of transmission of the Norovirus via the food chain particularly difficult. Common food sources of these viruses include produce, shellfish, ready-to-eat foods touched by infected food workers, or any other contaminated foods.
This may seem like quite a few different types of critters to watch out for. Staying safe from food poisoning may seem daunting, but the truth is, the world is teeming with microbial life. In fact, 1 teaspoon of soil contains the same number of microorganisms as all the humans living on the entire African continent. What’s important is to keep in mind what’s helpful and what can be hurtful to our health and make sure to take necessary precautions.
Interestingly enough, certain species of probiotic microbes within the gut can inhibit infection from foodborne pathogens. These associations are highly specific, defending us from pathogenic colonization that can cause illness. An example of this interaction is between Lactobacillus and Salmonella. Research has shown that probiotic bacteria isolated from kimchi can provide strong antimicrobial activity against harmful strains of pathogenic Salmonella. Next time you reach for the Hollandaise sauce, consider topping your (fully cooked) eggs with kimchi!
Food Poisoning’s Impact on the Gut
Especially relevant, food poisoning can disrupt the gut microbiome and trigger persistent health effects, namely a specific form of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) called post-infectious IBS. Research has associated this illness with food poisonings caused by E. Coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter. In one study, 10% of those that experienced a bacterial infection reported symptoms up to 10 years after the foodborne illness incident.
All the more reason to take the necessary precautions to prevent food poisoning -- wash those hands!
The good news? Research on how our gut microflora interacts with the food we eat is constantly evolving. If you’re curious about the diversity of yours, take a Floré gut test and find out!