Why Do We Eat Spoiled Food?

Some of our very favorite foods are closer
to this than this. That’s because coffee, bread, cheese, beer – even chocolate! – are
home to millions of microbes. In fact, these foods only acquire the tastes, smells, and
textures we love because of tiny bacteria and fungi. The vast majority of microbes – about 99%
– are actually quite harmless to humans. But the other 1% are nasty enough that our
ancestors – and the ancestors of various other mammals and birds – evolved a natural
repulsion to stuff that might harbor nasty germs. In general, we think rotten stuff looks
and smells disgusting, which, considering what’s at stake, isn’t overly cautious. Fortunately, if friendly microbes get to our
food first, they can keep the bad guys at bay. Meat left out on the counter provides
the perfect conditions for pathogens to flourish: it’s warm, moist, and protein-rich, just
like our bodies. But with some micromanagement – adding lots of salt, for instance – we
can help harmless, salt-tolerant microbes like Lactobacillus outcompete their dangerous
but salt-sensitive relatives. A few unrefrigerated months later, we get salami, rather than Salmonelli! Our ancestors stumbled on this kind of controlled
spoilage thousands of years ago – either by lucky accidents or out of serious desperation
– and we humans have been intentionally spoiling food ever since. Not only to keep
our food safe to eat, but also because the microbes we culture can transform it, almost
magically, into awesome deliciousness. Yeast, for example, gorge on the sugary starch
in bread dough, then burp out carbon dioxide that helps give loaves their lift. In a more
exotic transformation, bacteria and fungi take turns munching on piles of cacao, mellowing
out bitter polyphenols and helping create the complex and delicious taste of chocolate.
And deep in cheese caves, mold spores populate small holes and cracks in soon-to-be blue
cheese, while their relatives munch through the rest of the blob, digesting big protein
and fat molecules into a host of smaller aromatic and flavor compounds, that give the final
product its smoothness and rich, funky flavor. But to some, stinky cheese is about as appetizing
as licking someone’s toes. Which isn’t that far off, since the bacteria that make
some cheeses super-stinky are the same ones that cause foot odor. Yum? Even so, these flavors tend to grow on us:
not just literally but also figuratively. The more we’re exposed to particular microbial
funks – from our first taste of the flavor compounds in amniotic fluid forward – the
more we tend to like them. As a result, people around the world have
some very different ideas about how to microbe-ify foods – but every culinary culture involves
fermentation in one way or another. And if we didn’t let food spoil just a little bit,
we’d have no sauerkraut, soy sauce, pickles, or prosciutto. Not to mention kefir, kimchi,
kombucha, koumiss, katsuobushi – and plenty of other delicacies that don’t start with
K. What’s more, spoiled food may well have changed far more than our tastes – historical
evidence suggests that, when our ancestors gave up their wandering ways and settled down
to grow grain, it was likely for love of either bread or beer. Whatever the case, one thing
is clear: without the help of friendly fermenting microbes, we humans would be terribly uncultured.

100 thoughts on “Why Do We Eat Spoiled Food?

  1. Well i like to lick my salty toes and today my mom said THATS disgusting. SO I THOUGHT THAT I WOULD GET SICK BUT THEN I WATCH THIS AND ITS GOOD FOR ME! HAH FOR bekfast IMA PUT MY TOES IN My toes IN MY CEAREAL CUS ITS HEALTHY AND GOOOOOØOOOOOOOOD or as bill nie the science guy said "ITS GOOD FOR YOU!

  2. 1:18 That bright blue bacteria is the representation of that one classmate who always does NOTHING for your group project

  3. Whoever ate stinky cheese probably just vomited their whole digestive system out after watching this video

  4. Is 'spoiled' the right word? Genuine question. I was under the impression spoiled meant gone bad/inedible for humans.. where as fermentation would be its own process used in the many foods mentioned in the video

  5. 🍇🍈🍉🍊🍋🍌🍍🍎🍏🍐🍑🍒🍓🥝🍅🥑🍆🥔🥕🌽🌶️🥒🍄🥜🌰🍞🥐🥖🥞🧀🍖🍗🥓🍔🍟🍕🌭🌮🌯🥙🥚🥘🍲🥗🍿🍱🍘🍚🍛🍜🍝🍘🍙🍠🍢🍣🍤🍥🍡🍦🍧🍨🍩🍪🎂🍰🍫🍬🍭🍮🍯🥛☕🍵🍷🍺🥃🍽️🍴🥄

  6. …the guy who actually said something about 3 years ago is actually right about it 99% of Germs that hand sanitizer kill are the good guys


  8. I have kimchi, sauerkraut, wine, salami, soy sauce and blue cheese in my fridge right now. Come over to my house and we'll have a rotten food party!

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