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  • Some of our favorite foods are closer to THIS than THIS.

  • That's because coffee, bread, cheese, beer, even chocolate are all 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 percent, are actually quite harmless to humans.

  • But the other 1 percent 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 micro-management, adding lots of salt, for instance, we can help harmless, salt-tolerant microbes out-compete their dangerous but salt-sensitive relatives.

  • A few unrefrigerated months later, we get salami, rather than Salmonella!

  • 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 better 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, 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 were exposed to particular microbial funks, which can even start in the womb, 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.

  • If we didn't let food spoiled just a little bit, we 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.

  • This episode of Minute Earth is supported in part by tab for a cause.

  • One of our subscribers on Subbable and also a browser extension that gives money to charity each time you open a new tab in your web browser.

  • And it doesn't cost you a thing! Click the link in the description to start raising the money for great charities simply by surfing the web.

Some of our favorite foods are closer to THIS than THIS.

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