Scientific American presents Nutrition Divaby Quick & Dirty Tips. Scientific Americanand Quick & Dirty Tips are both Macmillan companies.

Nutrition Diva listener Vicky asked me to do a show on soil-based organisms, beneficial bugs that some people believe to be even more helpful than the friendly bacteria that you'll find in probiotic foods like yogurt.

There's been an explosion of research into the human gut and the trillions of bugs that call it home. Scientists are finding links between the bacteria that live in our bodies (sometimes referred to as the "microbiome") and everything from obesity to diabetes to allergies to autism. But the research is just getting started. A lot of the current work is simply an attempt to take a census--and there are a LOT of bugs to catalog. Figuring out exactly what all these bugs are actually doing for (or to) us and how we might manipulate these populations to our benefit is still a considerable ways off.

Meanwhile, consumers have cottoned to probiotics in a big way. Although consumption of dairy products has declined, consumption of yogurt is way up. Similarly, although sales of vitamin supplements are down, probiotic supplements are up. And everyone and their brother is now fermenting their own vegetables. The interest in soil-based organisms seems to be part of this trend as well.  

What Are Soil-Based Organisms?
As the name implies, soil-based organisms are bacteria (and other life forms) that live in the soil. There, they do for plants more or less what probiotic foods do for humans--break down plant material, produce vitamins, combat pathogens, and so on. In fact, the organic fertilizer that I put on my vegetable garden contains soil-based organisms to enhance the health of the soil.

These soil-based organisms make their way into our systems as well. Some hitch a ride on our hands or on raw fruits and vegetables that we eat.  You also get some soil-based organisms in natto and traditionally pickled vegetables.

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