Fermented foods are not a new phenomenon, but a recent spike in social-media attention has given them newfound status as wellness signifiers.

Kefir and kombucha – which have existed for thousands of years – are increasingly infiltrating media streams, shopping baskets and fridges. This summer, they seem to have reached peak pop culture awareness, jumping into the collective consciousness of the mainstream. US-based BCC Research has been tracking the phenomenon’s global market value since at least 2012. It was worth nearly $23.1 billion then, and was forecast to grow to US$36.7 billion by 2018.

But how does fermentation really affect your mind and body? And how can you separate the health facts from the #CleanEating fiction?

These questions may be answered in a new exhibition at Melbourne Museum. Gut Feelings: Your Mind + Your Microbes opens to the public in March, led by Dr Johanna Simkin, senior curator of human biology and medicine at the museum. “We’ve drawn on a huge and diverse body of research to start working out what’s real, and what’s hype,” she says.

It’s the probiotics in fermented foods that hold so much promise for health promoters’ profit margins, and our good health. Particularly, the ability of fermented foods to impact the microbes – teeny tiny life forms such as bacteria and fungi – that live in and on us. According to Dr Simkin, the majority of microbes live in our guts.

“A lot of your microbes are really good for you, and in ways that we’re just discovering,” Dr Simkin says. “Recent research is showing just how detailed and precise these microbial effects are, and it’s given us a whole new understanding of how the human body works.”

Gut Feelings is aimed at an adult audience interested in the phenomenon of gut health. “It’s more than a ‘science exhibition’; we’re thinking about the complete human experience,” says Dr Simkin.

There are an estimated 38 trillion microbes in and on a human body, and just 30 trillion cells. At one point during the research phase, Dr Simkin and her team had to stop and ask: ‘Who’s really in charge here?’ and ‘How much of you is you and how much of you is your microbes?’

“Microbes make short-chain fatty acids, which talk to our nervous, hormone and immune systems,” says Dr Simkin. “Your microbes can stimulate nerve cells and immune cells and influence inflammation in the body, which many scientists consider to be the root of all illness. They can affect your mood and your memory; the way you’re thinking about the world.”

The potential of microbiomes to positively impact human health ranges from being able to cure peanut allergies and coeliac disease, to decreasing anxiety. They may even be used in autoimmune therapies. “We don’t know if there is a single ultimate microbiome – yet,” Dr Simkin says. “Fecal microbe transplants are an amazing research tool revealing these details and are being used as a therapy for serious gut problems.”

Dr Simkin has worked with the museum’s experience developers and digital data experts to create interactive technology, multisensory art installations and object displays that will take visitors on a visually stunning, personal journey into the world of microbiomes and ecosystems. For example, body-mapping technology will overlay dynamic biological content onto visitors’ reflections in smart mirrors, while elsewhere the total number of gut microbes in the room will be displayed, fluctuating by the trillions as visitors enter and leave.

Gut Feelings is based on hard science, but Dr Simkin contends that when it comes to microbes, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. “Science has a vague idea of which ones are usually good for you and which are usually bad for you,” she says. “We also know that the ideal microbiome for me could be very different to the ideal one for you.”

The museum isn’t setting out to give health advice, but when pressed, Simkin says the research points to the importance of a wholefood diet. Oh, and the exhibition team has all started drinking kefir. Just saying.

Gut Feelings: Your Mind + Your Microbes opens on March 16. Details here.

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