Lillian Wilson

Cultured by Katherine Harmon Courage

‘Cultured’ offers a fascinating look at 300 trillion microorganisms in our gut and the nourishing foods that support their growth.

“Deeply researched but conversational and even funny, Cultured is the guide we need to make sense of the hope and hype of microbiome science and what it means for our everyday lives.” 
– Maryn McKenna, author of ‘Big Chicken,’ ‘Superbug,’ and ‘Beating Back the Devil’

For millions of years, trillions of bacteria have made their home inside our bodies, and they are far from just idle occupants. These microorganisms play a vital role in supporting our immune system, helping us absorb essential nutrients from food, and maintaining the overall health of our bodies. Without them, we would be vulnerable to opportunistic pathogens, rendering us defenceless and at risk. In short, their presence is absolutely crucial to our survival.

In this review, we will take a look at the book ‘Cultured’ by Katherine Harmon Courage, which delves into the fascinating world of gut health and provides in-depth insights on what to eat to make the gut microbiome thrive.

Author’s background

Katherine Harmon Courage is an accomplished and award-winning journalist, known for her exceptional contributions to various prestigious publications such as The New York Times, Wired, National Geographic, Scientific American, TIME, and The Washington Post.

Katherine Harmon Courage (r)

Her remarkable writing has been featured in “The Best American Science and Nature Writing.”

What is the book about?

In ‘Cultured’ by Katherine Harmon Courage, we embark on a fascinating exploration of the special connection between us humans and our microbiomes – the tiny living beings inside us. These incredible microorganisms are like superheroes, keeping our immune system strong and safeguarding our overall health. Without them, we’d be more susceptible to harmful germs, diseases and infections.

Courage delves into how our diet deeply impacts our microbiomes, the communities of tiny organisms within us. The book explores how our changing eating habits have influenced these microbial communities, from ancient food traditions to modern diets. The author highlights the significant effects of various foods on our gut microbiome and how they impact our overall well-being. Surprisingly, even a single meal can cause noticeable changes in our microbiome within a day.

Throughout the book, we can come across stories about the author’s captivating journeys to different parts of the world, exploring cuisines known for their connection to longevity and vibrant health. She uncovers the wisdom and unique flavours present in traditional foods, which play a crucial role in supporting and nurturing our microbiomes. From Greece to Seoul, from the Swiss Alps to Tokyo, the book takes readers on an exciting culinary adventure, showcasing diverse food cultures that benefit our microbiota.

Instead of promoting quick-fix diet solutions, ‘Cultured’ encourages a consistent diet that includes foods beneficial for a healthy gut. The book advocates for a preference for authentic and natural foods, fostering a taste for nourishing choices that positively influence both our microbiomes and overall health.

Table of contents

  • Also by Katherine Harmon Courage
  • Title page
  • Copyright
  • Dedication
  • Epigraph
  • Introduction We Are Not Alone
  • Chapter One Microbes: In Our Guts and Under Fire
  • Chapter Two What’s in the Gut
  • Chapter Three Feeding the Microbiome
  • Chapter Four Quintessential Culture: Dairy.
  • Chapter Five Consider the Pickle: Produce
  • Chapter Six Intoxicating Ferments: Grains
  • Chapter Seven Basic Beans: Legumes and Seeds
  • Chapter Eight The Undead: Meat
  • Chapter Nine Bringing It Home
  • Conclusion Saving an Invisible World
  • Further Reading
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
  • About the Author

Key takeaways from ‘Cultured’

1Eat fibre to be a good host to your gut microbes

Being a good host to our gut microbes involves ensuring they receive adequate nourishment, with fibre playing a crucial role. Fibre consists of complex carbohydrates that are not easily digested by our bodies, allowing them to reach the lower intestine intact, where they serve as a source of sustenance for beneficial microbes.

Unfortunately, modern diets have significantly reduced the consumption of fibre. The average American’s daily fibre intake is only about 15 grams, falling well short of the recommended 30 grams or more. In contrast, our ancestors likely consumed approximately 100 to 150 grams of fibre daily, while some traditional African diets still supply 60 to 140 grams of fibre each day.

Research indicates that the decrease in fibre intake has led to alterations in the gut microbiota and an elevated risk of Western-associated ailments, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). On the other hand, adopting a high-fibre diet can have positive effects on the gut microbiota in as little as two weeks.

2Our gut microbiota is head over heels for fermented and pickled foods

Note from Healthypedia

Pickling and fermenting differ in how they achieve a sour flavour. Pickled foods become sour by soaking in an acidic brine, whereas fermented foods get their sourness from a chemical reaction between sugars and bacteria.

Fermented veggies and fruits

Pickled and fermented foods are associated with various health advantages. The fermentation process involves managing spoilage by creating a favourable environment for beneficial microbes to thrive and outcompete harmful ones. This results in a safe, tangy, and microbe-rich food that enhances dietary diversity and may provide extra health benefits. The pickling process is a dynamic journey, with different microbial species and strains taking turns in dominance, contributing to the captivating and flavorful world of fermented vegetables and fruits.

Fermented grains

Fermented grain products have been central to Asian fermentation traditions, offering culturally significant beverages with rich flavours, intoxicating compounds, and unexpected microbes. Historical alcoholic beverages often contained live microbes, and some ancient fermentation processes involved mastication to introduce initial doses of microbes. From rice-based drinks in ancient China to mouth-chewed beverages in Japan and South America, fermentation methods varied across cultures.

Today, while many beers are brewed in sterile environments with specific yeast strains, some brewers still create wild ales with diverse microbial profiles. Molded rice, or koji, is essential in Asian fermented foods like miso, soy sauce, and sake. Fermented grains provide prebiotic food for beneficial gut microbes, promoting gut health.

Overall rating & strengths and weaknesses, according to readers’ reviews

The book has gotten 3.84 ⭐️ on GoodReads.


  • Provides a more rigorous approach compared to many popular books on the same subject.

  • Presents the information in an accessible and well-written manner.

  • Offers recipes designed for improving gut microbiota.

  • Presents interesting facts and unique food discoveries, like kiviak in Greenland, adding to the book’s appeal for those interested in food, health, and history.


  • An overemphasis on vegetarian, low-fat, and anti-meat diets compromises the objectivity of the information presented.

  • Promoting low-fat concepts without acknowledging the differences between high-fat and high-carb diets can result in misunderstandings about dietary health.

Best quotes from ‘Cultured’

“More precisely, we’ve had help from the trillions of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and archaea that have inhabited our bodies for millions of years – and had existed on this planet for billions of years before we even came along. Walt Whitman was more correct than he ever could have known. We contain multitudes beyond our wildest imaginations.”
“But human genes explain only about 30 percent of the risk for Crohn’s disease and 10 percent of the risk for ulcerative colitis, says Gary Wu…”
“At Ozuké, kimchi is the best-selling pickle. To make it, they usually ferment their chosen veggie blend for a week or two, depending on how warm it is and what ingredients are in the ferment. The process pretty much takes care of itself. ‘If it has everything it needs, it just goes for it,’ Willow King says.”

Final takeaway

‘Cultured’ by Katherine Harmon Courage is a captivating and well-researched journey into the fascinating world of our gut microbiome. Courage skillfully navigates the complex interplay between human health and the multitudes of microorganisms that reside within us.

This book is a must-read for science-interested readers, health-conscious individuals, and anyone curious about the profound impact of our dietary choices on our overall well-being. Whether you’re seeking to enhance your gut health, explore the rich traditions of fermented foods, or simply delve into the captivating science behind our microbiome, ‘Cultured’ offers a thought-provoking and enjoyable read for all.

Where to buy

You may purchase ‘Cultured’ on Amazon at the best price. It is available in hardcover, audio and Kindle versions, so you may choose an option that appeals to you the most.

Healthypedia FAQ

Yes, ‘Cultured’ provides dietary insights, including the benefits of fibre-rich foods and the advantages of consuming fermented and pickled items for gut microbiota.

The book stands out for its well-researched approach and captivating storytelling, showcasing unique food cultures worldwide and their significance in nurturing our microbiomes.

Yes, ‘Cultured’ includes recipes that focus on improving gut microbiota, making it an engaging and practical resource for those interested in trying fermented foods at home.

Link is copied