Caring for the microbiota is in fashion, but what is the ideal way to feed it?

In recent years, numerous investigations have been carried out on the intestinal microbiota. That is, on the set of microorganisms that inhabit the gastrointestinal tract of human beings. Most of these microorganisms are bacteria that reside mainly in the colon (90%). It has been estimated that there are more than 1000 different bacterial species. Among them predominate the Phylum Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes.

The intestinal microbiota of each individual is unique. This is determined in the first years of life not only by genetic factors but also by the type of delivery (vaginal or cesarean section). In addition, the moment of birth, the breastfeeding model (breastfeeding or artificial), the environment in which one is born (rural or urban) or the use of antibiotics in early childhood also have an influence.

Even so, the intestinal microbiota can subsequently be modified by age and, above all, by lifestyle. In this we include variables such as diet, physical exercise and exposure to toxic substances: tobacco, alcohol, stress, etc.

The composition and functionality of the intestinal microbiota is closely linked to human health. In fact, it has been related to important pathologies such as inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, immune system disorders or even autism spectrum disorders.

The role of diet in the microbiota

It is known that diet is the most important factor in modifying the composition of said set of microorganisms. It has been shown, for example, that a diet based on plant-based foods prevents non-communicable diseases (obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, etc.). But we also know that it improves the composition and functionality of the intestinal microbiota.

For these benefits to take place, it would be worth following a Mediterranean diet, prepared with fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, etc.

Currently, there are numerous scientific studies that show the relationship between diet, intestinal microbiota and health. However, few works have taken into account the thermal processing of food.

In this line, a research group from the University of Granada is a pioneer in the study of the relationship between the thermal processing of food and the composition and functionality of the intestinal microbiota.

In general, the general conclusion of their work is that the thermal processing of food does modify the set of intestinal microorganisms. But said effect will depend mainly on the nutritional composition of the food.

Cooked or grilled?

In this sense, the same thermal processing does not affect in the same way whether the food is of animal or plant origin. Thus, it has been shown that intense culinary techniques (such as roasting or grilling) in foods of plant origin (such as peppers or chickpeas) increase the population of beneficial bacteria for human health such as Rumninococcus spp. ooo Bifidobacterium spp.compared to less drastic treatments such as cooking in water.

These drastic cooking give rise to modifications in the composition of the food due to various chemical transformations (such as the Maillard reaction). As a consequence, they cause the formation of compounds that escape digestion and reach the colon directly, where they are fermented by the community of intestinal microorganisms.

These more intense heat treatments can affect the intestinal microbiota both beneficially (as with peppers or chickpeas) and detrimental (as with chicken), depending on the origin of the food.

Likewise, this type of cooking favors the transformation of the vegetable food matrix. In this way, the phenolic compounds are more accessible to bacteria. That is, they can be metabolized by them until they become compounds that can be absorbed by humans in greater proportion. In this way, they increase their beneficial properties.

However, there are other foods of plant origin, such as cereals and derivatives (bread) and fruit, which due to their composition benefit more from milder heat treatments (cooking in water). Cooking at lower temperatures makes it easier for beneficial bacteria to access nutrients.

The meat, better cooked

In the case of foods of animal origin, the effect of cooking is different. Meat subjected to mild aqueous cooking has a beneficial effect on the composition and functionality of the intestinal microbiota.

On the contrary, the most drastic culinary techniques (roast or grill) cause a higher proportion of harmful bacteria. The reason is probably that there is a greater proportion of proteins that humans cannot digest (due to the action of heat) but that can be fermented by these harmful bacteria.

Taking into account all this information, we wonder why these differences occur if the cooking of food is a very old and widespread human action. In this line, an American research team has proposed a hypothesis that tries to answer.

They propose that the effect thermal processing has on the microbiota may be due to the fact that the microbiota has evolved alongside humans under the evolutionary pressure of cooking. In this way, the microorganisms have adapted to the nutrients that reach them after the modification of the food.

For all these reasons, in the coming years we will be able to observe the appearance of many scientific studies that relate changes in the microbiota with modifications in the cooking of food. In this way we can establish a series of rules that allow us to determine what type of culinary techniques are best for each person.

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