This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
Now and then I get an email asking about using Betaine HCL to heal from GERD. I first heard about this supplement through Robb Wolf's podcast. By the time I heard of it, I already did not have GERD. I bought a bottle to use as a digestive enzyme after large meals like Thanksgiving, but it didn't do very much for me and I kind of forgot about it.
The use of acidic products to treat GERD is a common folk remedy. Back when I had GERD, I based my own treatment on both preliminary scientific research such as these studies on supplements and low-carb. But I also drew on some internet folk remedies that utilized harmless foods. At the time that was all that was out there, and the side effects of the Nexium I was on were so intolerable that I felt I didn't have much to lose. At the time one of the top Google results for heartburn remedies was this site advocating apple cider vinegar tonics. I started taking them after every meal. It was initially uncomfortable, but eventually I found relief. And a weird permanent craving from acidic foods that remains to this day and seems to drive my love for kombucha and sour beer.
There aren't any studies at all on acid supplementation and GERD. The folk remedy sites had two theories about it:
1. That GERD was actually caused by LOW stomach acid (I hear this a lot in the alternative health community and there are no studies that show this- consistently studies of people with GERD show high acidity, buts it seems to be more a disease of acidity at inappropriate times, inflammation, and of esophageal sphincter dysfunction). Taking acidic thing X is supposed to fix that somehow.
2. That introducing acidic things into the stomach causes a buffering action and lowers acidity after a meal.
In the instance of apple cider vinegar, because it is a cultured food, there are all kinds of confounders like the phytochemicals from apples and the live bacteria and associated byproducts. Same thing goes for kombucha. There is some evidence that fermented foods can increase gastric acid secretion in the form of a nice glass of wine. Beer may have similar effects, and also stimulates GI motility. But sorry- not whiskey and other distilled beverages. Other things that are known to increase acidity include high-protein meals.
Maybe HCL does something similar? I don't know. I just know that some bloggers like Robb Wolf and SCDlifestyle promote a test for taking it which was to pop the capsules until you feel a warming sensation in the stomach. I've seen it lead to some pretty sad people taking dozens and dozens of these capsules with no effect and thinking they have low stomach acid because of it. It is even possible they are doing real harm to their stomach lining with these pseudoscientific tests- the burning/warming senasation might indicate irritation of the stomach lining, which means that the integrity of that lining is an issue, not necessarily the acidity of the stomach.
- Start with one 400 mg capsule of AdaptaGest Flex in the early part of each meal. You should begin to feel better digestive response following meals.
- After two or three days, increase the dose to two capsules at the beginning of meals. Then after another two days increase to three capsules. Increase the dose gradually in this stepwise fashion until you feel a mild warming sensation.
- When you feel this sensation, reduce the dosage to the previous number of capsules you were taking before you experienced it and stay at that dosage. This is your maintenance dose. You should notice significant improvement in digestion: less gas and bloating, better absorption, more regular and better-formed stools.
- If you start feel a warming sensation at that dose, reduce again. Over time you may find that you can continue to reduce the dosage, or you may also find that you may need to increase the dosage.
- After 90 days on your maintenance dose, try to gradually reduce the dose to zero. For some people, this will be possible. Others may need to take HCL indefinitely (this is especially true if you have a history of PPI or other acid-suppressing drug use).
I guess we'll have to take their word for it. Dr. Art Ayers, a laboratory scientist who sadly hasn't blogged in ages, has questioned Betaine-HCL:
The HCl in betaine-HCl, just means that HCl was used to neutralize the betaine. There is no HCl in betaine-HCl. Using betaine as a supplement will buffer your stomach and have no impact other than perhaps lowering acidity. Betaine is very bizarre stuff, so it may incidentally increase the production of stomach acid, but I know nothing about that.
In most cases, stomach acidity is not the problem. Typically the problem is with gut bacteria...
The confusion comes from the fact that betaine has two ionizable groups, like amino acids in water. The N, bonded to four carbons has a positive charge and the carboxylic acid loses its proton to have a negative charge. When HCl is added, the H+ reprotonates the carboxyl group and the Cl- forms an ionic bond with the positively charged quaternary amine to yield a salt.
There is no HCl in NaCl and no HCl in ammonium chloride and no HCl in betaine-HCl. All of those are salts.
Betaine-HCl cannot be claimed to increase stomach acid in over the counter medications, because there is no evidence to support the claim.
Thanks for the questions.
Whose word to take though? I'm going with Art because at the end of the day there simply is "no evidence to support the claim." Furthermore, think about his explanation- if you looked at the label of Zantac, which is an ANTI-ACID I used to take, it says Ranitidine-HCL.
Now regardless of whether it works, why would someone who is transitioning to a "paleo" diet need something like this? My own impression is that many such diets are excessively high in added fats and this is often a very sudden change for people, not giving their digestive system time to adjust to them. Very high fat meals may also lead to slowed gastric emptying for people who are not used to such foods (this might not be a bad thing always as it increases satiation, but you might feel bloated and have reflux if it's too pronounced). I remember low-carb coconut milk (common additives like guar gum might play a role here)-based meals that felt like they were a brick in my stomach. I wonder a bit if the Dr. Kruse fever that briefly swept "paleos" was a product of his suggestion that people eat a nice high-protein breakfast, which may have stimulated a more favorable gastric environment than the mostly fat breakfasts I often see, though it also included a lot of added fat and some people on forums noted they were bloated or had to force themselves to finish it.
But honestly when you are doing a bunch of different things, it's hard to tell what is responsible for making you better. That's why when people say that Expert X knows that Something works because of "clinical experience," I don't take much stock in that. Few clinicians are recommending just one thing. And the placebo effect is a powerful thing.
Also a lot of Betaine HCL formulations are gelatin capsules- people might benefit from the gelatin rather than the stuff inside the capsule. I did not have any luck with betaine HCL, but I've added a lot of gelatin to my diet with great results. Also the betaine itself, though it's hard to comment on that because there doesn't seem to be much information on the type in the supplement, but studies on betaine have shown it can possibly affect digestion and gut integrity (mostly animal studies), as well as homocysteine metabolism. Like Ayers said, it's weird stuff. That GERD supplementation study I mentioned up thread used betaine (not betaine HCL, but if Ayers is right is should be about the same thing although this supplement publication suggests it will not work as well as betaine, but this livestock publication suggests they should work identically), melatonin, tryptophan, methionine, B12, B6, and folic acid. Most betaine-HCL is also bundled with the enzyme pepsin, which could also improve digestion though there are not many studies out there on supplementing it. So maybe it does work, but for not the reasons people think it does.
Overall though I think the most promising approach to issues like GERD is a
This has worked for me, members of my family, and people who have corresponded with me. Maybe this surprises people because it's quite obvious I eat a higher-carbohydrate diet now, but I've always said low-carb diets can be therapeutic, I just never bought into the idea that you should eat them forever or that they were the optimal human diet.
I would not recommend the "test" of acid levels that involves taking more and more Betaine-HCL, I suspect people getting "acid damage" from that just are upsetting their stomachs.
What do you think? Have you had any interesting experiences with supplements for improving digestion?
With all these success stories about people feeling better on various diets, I think we forgot the people who sometimes feel worse. Probably because those people give up and don't stick around. I'm known many people who have adopted paleo, primal, ancestral, low-carb, gluten-free, or whatever diet. And instead of feeling better, they have all kinds of problems, particularly stomach problems.
There are many reasons why this happens, here are a couple I tend to come across:
1. They hose their digestive system with "cleanses." For example, the Master Cleanse, which involves fasting on just lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne for a few days to a week. Now I love spicy food. And I love acidic food. But out of the context of real whole meals, there is plenty of evidence they can be irritants, particularly in the digestive lining. There is no evidence that the Master Cleanse will remove some nebulous "toxins," but you are not only disturbing your gut microbiota (both good and bad) and irritating the mucous membranes of your gut, but also depriving yourself of real nutrients your body uses to maintain its defenses. You'll come out of it with possibly increased gut permeability and a devastated population of gut microbes. If you've already tormented your poor gut with this, you might need to eat a gentle diet (FODMAPS, for example) and take probiotics until your gut becomes less inflamed and repairs itself. People do often feel better on cleanses though in other ways, but that's because they are excluding many foods and yes, there is some value in breaking up pathogenic biofilms in the gut, but there are possibly more sustainable and gentle ways to do so based on preliminary scientific studies.
2. Speaking of FODMAPs ( Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols. ), another reason people might feel worse is that many so-called safe or good foods on these diets are difficult for many people to digest. A lot of books talk about how difficult it is to digest grains, but many plants have similar complex carbohydrates that can cause gas, bloating, and other GI symptoms. Rice, for example, is mostly nutritionless, but has had most of its complex carbohydrates polished away. If you take it out of your diet and replace it with "grain-free cauliflower 'rice'", you are consuming a massive amount of Oligosaccharides. I personally had a lot of bloating from foods like this. Remove them from your diet and then add them back in slowly one at a time to see what you can tolerate.
3. They forget any food can be toxic. Gluten, for example, seems to take a beating in the "toxic" department with nearly every book talking about how bad it is and how many people have celiac, which shows how gluten is a terrible non-food that no one should ever eat. But plenty of people are allergic to shrimp and we don't talk about how we aren't meant to eat shrimp because of that. I also see people talking about toxic lectins and phytic acid, but these aren't just in grains, they can be in any plant food. Peanuts and gluten are particularly bad because their biochemical structure causes problems for many people, but you can be sensitive to any food. Even beef. Once you take off the blinders, maybe you should consider whether or not you are feeling sick because a "safe" food isn't so safe for you? Or maybe you shouldn't be eating bread made out of an entire cup of walnuts, which might overload the capacity of your body to deal with the phytic acid and other assorted irritants in nuts.
4. They think fermented foods are always good. Sauerkraut? It's a cure-all! Why not eat it with every meal? Unfortunately, we do not have the robust digestive systems of our ancestors. If your gut is damaged, contamination of fermented foods by mold or sensitivity to histamine can be a real issue. You might have to remove them from your diet or at least find a source that is less likely to be contaminated. Additionally, fermentation does not always remove all FODMAPs, so many FODMAPs sensitive people will have digestive symptoms when eating things like sauerkraut.
5. They put massive amounts of fat on top of everything. So you heard fat has been unfairly maligned? Time to put massive amounts of coconut oil, butter, coconut milk, lard, and other fats on top of all your food right? Well, maybe slow down a bit and give your body some time to adjust to a higher-fat diet before you make your diet mostly fat, because adding in it all at once all the sudden can cause GI problems. For a long time I was one of those people who thought that only carbohydrates could cause GI symptoms and contribute to dysbiosis, but fat definitely can increase levels of endotoxins and increase gut permeability as well, and it seems that phytochemicals may inhibit that process. So, instead of chugging that can of coconut milk before your workout, maybe consider having a normal meal that includes a variety of other foods as well. In the end, while it might sound like heresy, some people actually might not do very well on high-fat diets. Try replacing processed carb foods in your regular diet with fruits and tubers instead of with fatty foods.
6. They take massive amounts of supplements. When you are taking ten different supplements, the odds that you are taking one that is irritating your stomach get pretty high. Mineral supplements like magnesium and iron are top offenders, as are supplements that contain FODMAPs in the form of prebiotics like inulin. Stop taking the supplements until your stomach sorts out and then add them back in one at a time to see which ones you can tolerate. With iron, it is probably advisable to get it from food, since excess iron can feed pathogenic gut bacteria.
7. Undereating can be just as problematic as overeating, particularly on a new diet. If you undereat, your body won't be able to maintain its systems effectively, which can make your digestive system prone to irritation. Counting calories may not be perfectly accurate, but it can help you get an idea of whether or not you aren't giving your body enough nourishment.
8. Excessive amounts of protein all at once. One friend recently told me he was having stomach problems on paleo. Turns out he was mainly eating chicken , which was providing massive amounts of protein without much fat, probably leading to a type of mild "rabbit starvation." As arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson wrote:
But it has been found in various parts of the world that a diet of lean meat exclusively will cause diarrhea in from three days to a week. If no fat can be added to the lean, the diarrhea becomes serious and will lead to death. A well known field where such deaths occur is the northern edge of the forest in Canada where Indians are sometimes unable to find any food except rabbits. The expression "rabbit starvation," frequently heard among the Athapsc Indians north-west of Great Bear Lake, means not that people are starving because there are no rabbits but that they are going through the experience of starvation with plenty of rabbit meat. For this animal is so lean that illness and death result from being confined to its flesh.
in this situation, it would be wise to add some fat, carbohydrate, or both to the diet to normalize things. You might be able to tolerate higher protein if you add it in slowly. You are probably not going to die, it's more likely you will discontinue the diet when your roommate orders pizza and you feel better after a few slices.
9. They have food poisoning. I'll never forget several years ago in college when I was having worsening IBS symptoms and I kept trying to fix them with diet until I ended up in the ER. A stool culture revealed I had salmonella and needed antibiotics. If you symptoms keep getting worse, it might be time to go to the doctor and ask for a stool culture.
10. These diets can't fix everything. I know several people for whom no dietary tweaking worked and they were later diagnosed with serious IBD. They are doing better on medicine. In the old days, they probably would have died. Many many people died in the past from diarrhea. Don't beat yourself up if you can't eat your way out of a very serious illness. Some people can, some people can't. Modern medicine can make your life better if you are one of the latter. Even if you don't have a serious stomach disorder, there are tons of non-diet things that can cause stomach problems, like sleeping poorly or thyroid conditions.
Any others I'm missing that caused you problems?
If you like shrews, especially if you like them parboiled, you'll want to devour a 1994 study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Called Human Digestive Effects on a Micromammalian Skeleton, it explains how and why one of its authors – either Brian D Crandall or Peter W Stahl; we are not told which – ate and excreted a 90mm-long (excluding the tail, which added another 24mm) northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda).
This was, in technical terms, "a preliminary study of human digestive effects on a small insectivore skeleton", with "a brief discussion of the results and their archaeological implications". Crandall and Stahl were anthropologists at the State University of New York in Binghamton. The shrew was a local specimen, procured via trapping at an unspecified location not far from the school. For the experiment's input, preparation was exacting. After being skinned and eviscerated, the report says, "the carcass was lightly boiled for approximately 2 minutes and swallowed without mastication in hind and fore limb, head, and body and tail portions".
Here's how Crandall and Stahl handled the output: "Faecal matter was collected for the following 3 days. Each faeces was stirred in a pan of warm water until completely disintegrated. This solution was then decanted through a quadruple-layered cheesecloth mesh. Sieved contents were rinsed with a dilute detergent solution and examined with a hand lens for bone remains." They then examined the most interesting bits with a scanning electron microscope, at magnifications ranging from 10 to 1,000 times.
A shrew has lots of bony parts. All of them entered Crandall's gullet, or maybe Stahl's. But despite extraordinary efforts to find and account for each bone at journey's end, many went missing. One of the major jawbones disappeared. So did four of the 12 molar teeth, several of the major leg and foot bones, nearly all of the toe bones, and all but one of the 31 vertebrae. And the skull, reputedly a very hard chunk of bone, emerged with what the report calls "significant damage".
The vanishing startled the scientists. Remember, they emphasise in their paper, that this meal was simply gulped down: "The shrew was ingested without chewing; any damage occurred as the remains were processed internally. Mastication undoubtedly damages bone, but the effects of this process are perhaps repeated in the acidic, churning environment of the stomach."
Chewing, they almost scream at their colleagues, is only part of the story. In each little heap of remains from ancient meals, there be mystery aplenty. Prior to this experiment, archaeologists had to, and did, make all kinds of assumptions about the animal bones they dug up, especially what those partial skeletons might indicate about the people who presumably consumed them. Crandall and Stahl, through their disciplined lack of mastication, have given their colleagues something toothsome to think about.
The human stomach was more capable at digesting bones than they expected. This isn't terribly surprising to me, as many cultures consume whole bone-in animals and there is plenty of archaeological evidence for this. Here's a bit from John Speth's book:
Well-preserved prehistoric human coprolites (feces) recovered in large numbers from dry caves throughout western North America are full of pulverized bone fragments, including pieces of broken skulls, as well as fur and feathers, indicating that rodents, rabbits, birds, lizards, snakes, and amphibians were often cooked whole, pounded in a wooden mortar or on a milling stone, and then consumed in their entirety – bones, fur, feathers, and all, including the precious DHA in the brains (Reinhard et al. 2007; Sobolik 1993; Yohe et al. 1991).
It would appear that the Desha people at Dust Devil Cave ate rabbit legs more-or-less whole, then pounded the rest of the carcass before eating it... The consumption of wood rats (Neotoma spp.), also known as pack rats, has been noted ethnographically. They were regarded as good food by the Yaqui (Spicer, 1954: 49), constituted a staple for all tribes along the lower Colorado River (Castetter & Bell, 1951: 217), and many were eaten by the Tohono O’Odham. The Cocopah set fire to their nests, clubbing the rats as they emerged, undoubtedly fragmenting some bone in the process.
In the past, there was perhaps more focus on big game hunting. And while big game bones are nice, they are harder to process than little animal bones. Primates have probably been digesting little bones for much longer than they have been breaking open larger bones for marrow. Excessive focus on big game has led to ignoring the contribution of small game to human nutrition, which has also led to the misconception that women don't hunt since some anthropologists classified small game hunting as gathering.
It would be interesting to know if other primates can also digest bone. Chimpanzees seem to degrade the bones of other primates they hunt and consume (PDF). Salad lovers might be interested to know that when chimpanzees consume a meal of meat, they consume it with leaves.
It would also be fascinating to know if humans process the same ability as some other carnivores to use animal parts as de-facto fiber and ferment it into SCFA.
At some point in human evolution, humans developed technology to extract nutrients from bones more efficient than their own stomaches, which is referred to as "grease processing" in many archaeological papers, but is close to what we do in making broths today. It is understandable why humans developed this, considering a meaty meal for a chimpanzee can take nearly the entire day to consume. Frankly, while I like a 6-hour tasting menu sometimes, I don't have time for that very often.
But today, could many humans handle bone? With dietary and medical factors like widespread use of proton pump inhibitors reducing acidity of the digestive tract, are we losing this capability?
For the record, I have never eaten a whole rodent bones and all, though I have eaten many small whole bony fish. There is some indication that humans degrade fish bones more completely, leading to their relative scarcity in coprolites and underestimation of their importance in diet.
Perhaps whole rat eating is becoming trendy again though, a posh rat dinner was featured in the New York Times recently.
The internet is full of vegetarian and vegan websites claiming meat is bad because it "rots" in your colon. This is actually a very old idea, tracing back in the United States to neo-puritan vegetarian movements obsessed with the uncleanliness of the colon. According to folks like John Harvey Kellogg, the colon, like the genitalia, was a source of uncleanliness, so it must be bombarded by as much harsh fiber as possible and regular enemas to keep it "clean."
But his philosophy, which seems quite dysfunctional today, was a reaction to another idea that was popular during this time: that the colon was a useless vestigial remnant used to store garbage before clearance. Taken to its extreme, it led to a brief fancy by surgeons like Sir William Arbuthnot Lane to simply just remove the colons of people who suffered from constipation, believing it was nearly useless anyway. Colon removals are still performed today, but mainly in truly serious cases of damage such as severe inflammatory bowel disease.
Kellogg also believed it was a garbage dispenser, but he thought it was very important to keep it as clear and clean as possible, ideally eliminating after every single meal.
The truth is that the colon is not a garbage dispenser, it is a rich and biodiverse ecosystem in which much of the intestinal microbiota resides. And nature abhors a waste, so if a food makes it into the colon, there will probably be something eager to eat it. I suppose "rot" could be an uncharitable way to view it, as these remnants are degraded by bacteria, producing a variety of harmful, harmless, and beneficial byproducts that can play important roles in human health. If we are going to view things in such a negative light, it's worth thinking about how when you die and your immune system flat-lines forever, this bacteria will be on the front lines for rotting you. But for now, it's our very own internal composting system.
our colon is more like a composting bin than a trash can
Being a rich, full ecosystem, some bacteria in the colon even feed primarily on the byproducts of other bacteria in the colon, which is known as cross-feeding.
These bacteria will consume basically anything that the small intestine does not absorb. In humans compared to other primates, the small intestine is enlarged and the colon is diminished, indicating that humans evolved to consume more foods that are readily absorbed by the small intestine. In other primates, like the gorilla for example, the small intestine is much smaller and the colon is much much larger. Gorillas, who eat a diet of mainly rough leaves and pith that the small intestine would not be able to absorb, get most of their energy (around 60%) from bacterial degradation to short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) in the colon.
Humans can also get energy from SCFA, probably as much as 9%, though this data suffers from the fact that most of it comes from Western populations. Recent studies on more diverse populations shows that other groups of people have very different gut bacterial populations, which might allow them to extract more energy from colonic fermentation. Overall, in humans SCFA are less important as an energy source, but retain an important role in controlling inflammation and gut integrity.
In the opposite circles of the "meat will rot in your colon" crowd, there is the idea that if you remove carbohydrates, particularly complex carbohydrates, from the diet you can avoid some of the more noxious types of fermentation in the colon that may produce flatulence and diarrhea.
This works for some people, but fails for others, particularly over time. This is a testament to the plucky nature of our microbiome. There are plenty of bacteria in the colon more than eager to chomp on excess dietary iron and amino acids, among many other things which are present on low-carb diets as well.
This problem can be exacerbated when the small intestine is damaged, allowing nutrients that should be absorbed mainly by the small intestine into the colon. This seems to be a reason that iron supplementation sometimes fails to improve anemia and instead causes gastrointestinal problems. It is also perhaps the mechanism in which heme iron could lead to inflammation that is connected with colon cancer.
Small intestine dysfunction can also be caused by the overgrowth of bacteria that really belong in the large intestine and colon, known as Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO).
On the other side, there is a worry that low-carb will lead to inflammation due to lowered SCFA production. Lucas Tafur has written that perhaps these studies did not last long enough for the ecosystem to adjust and cross-feed in order to produce SCFA.
There is also a need for more studies on different people from different cultures in order to fully capture the full capacities of the human microbiome. For example, some people have cellulose-degrading bacteria, others do not. In the future, perhaps a scan of individual gut biomes could help people figure out what diet is best for them.
So yeah, lots of things "rot" in your colon. And that's not a bad thing at all. That's exactly how the colon is supposed to work. It's not supposed to be squeaky clean and scoured with wheat bran, it's supposed to be a jungle. It's controlling the "bad" bacteria and their byproducts, as well as selecting for good bacteria and maintaining the integrity of the gut lining and the "gut brain" (our second brain) that really matters.
If you enjoyed this post, you'd probably like my series on the colon.
A new free-full text paper by Ian Spreadbury has been making the rounds lately. "Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity" is interesting because it is written through a distinctly Ancestral Health lens to provide a new framework for thinking about possible causes of Western disease.
For some time, many people in the Ancestral Health movement have blamed carbohydrates for various diseases of civilization, but over time, this idea has lost its hold and many writers in the movement now reject it. We perhaps have our own paradox- the "Kitavan paradox," which was probably the source for much of this questioning, particularly since so many paleo diet books in the past cited the Kitavan study and then told readers to restrict carbohydrates. This paper looks for reasons why
Despite food abundance and a clear overlap of macronutrients and glycemic index with Western diets, Kitavans are reported to possess leptin levels, fasting insulin, and blood glucose levels dramatically lower than those in Western populations deemed healthy, and appear to have a virtual absence of overweight, diabetes, and atherosclerotic disease.
What if it were something about grains per-se rather than carbohydrates? The paper describes how endotoxemia in the gut, particularly Lipopolysaccharide (LPS), can lead to systematic inflammation related to many elements of metabolic syndrome like leptin resistance. Endotoxins are part of the cell-wall in gram-negative bacteria such as E.Coli and Salmonella and they provoke an inflammatory response in many contexts. The idea here is that Western diets perhaps might increase endotoxemia by promoting growth of pathogenic bacteria and adding fuel to the fire by increasing intestinal permeability, allowing endotoxins to ply their inflammation across the entire body. He also mentions the fact that science is showing that this process occurs in the mouth as well, where modern diets promote "leaky teeth" aka gingivitis, which has convincing ties to metabolic syndrome (which pilot studies show a paleo diet might treat).
Unfortunately, we then develop another paradox because most of the studies on LPS in humans show that absorption is promoted by a high-fat diet. And as the paper notes, foraging peoples with higher fat diets do not seem impaired.
Spreadbury lays out a hypothesis that carbohydrates can be divided into two groups. Cellular carbohydrates, which are:
Tubers, fruits, or functional plant parts such as leaves and stems store their carbohydrates in organelles as part of fiber-walled living cells. These are thought to remain largely intact during cooking, which instead mostly breaks cell-to-cell adhesion. This cellular storage appears to mandate a maximum density of around 23% non-fibrous carbohydrate by mass, the bulk of the cellular weight being made up of water.
Then there are the acellular carbohydrates:
The acellular carbohydrates of flour,94 sugar and processed plant-starch products are considerably more dense. Grains themselves are also highly dense, dry stores of starch designed for rapid macroscopic enzymic mobilization during germination.95 Whereas foods with living cells will have their low carbohydrate density “locked in” until their cell walls are breached by digestive processes, the chyme produced after consumption of acellular flour and sugar-based foods is thus suggested to have a higher carbohydrate concentration than almost anything the microbiota of the upper GI tract from mouth to small bowel would have encountered during our coevolution.
And here we have another problem. Because archeologists continue to find earlier and earlier evidence of what was once considered advanced food processing, from pottery to grind stones. The foods that are characterized as "acellular"...well, how long have they been in the human diet? The paper mentions some of these finds, but says they were likely a small part of ancient diets, but that is far from a sure thing. We also have an ethnographical gap here in this chart:
Because you can see modern processed foods there, but nothing on indigenous "processed" foods. No chicha or poi or any of the variety of ground/fermented/pounded foods that many of these cultures consume. This is partially because there is very little data on these foods, which is unfortunate.
My prediction is that better accounting of indigenous diets will show that they consume more of the acellular carbohydrates than initially predicted by some. We also need ethnographical data that records everything consumed, even things that seem incidental like teas.
But I think we need to look further into the types of these consumed and other compounds they contain. Same for fatty foods.
An interesting thing here (thanks Stabby the Raccoon) is that studies show that orange juice, a accellular carbohydrate, reduces endotoxin load. Orange juice is one of those things you probably thought was healthy and then you realized it had sugar and it was "bad" and now people are rediscovering it again. But I think the sugar here is incidental, what is probably more interesting is the ability of antioxidants to suppress endotoxins. Wine and olive oil may have similar properties.
I was browsing The Human Food Project's website and came across a letter written by anthropologist Jeff Leach on low-carb diets:
In a series of elegant studies, Cani and colleagues ( 2-4) have shown that holding calories constant and varying macro levels of fat can induce low-grade metabolic endotoxemia which can lead to complications associated with cardiovascular health. As fat intake, so do serum levels of LPS and associated biomarkers. However, in high-fat diets with prebiotic oligosaccharides added (derived from chicory roots), serum levels of LPS drop, as do the metabolic markers of inflammation.
So it is also possible that prebiotics in indigenous diets also have a protective effect. So we shouldn't look so much perhaps at dividing carbohydrates into two categories, but tracing each type of carbohydrate to the type of bacterial environment it promotes.
Now n=1 time here, but I had gingivitis before I started eating better and it went away. And all the sudden it came back. And it was incredibly frustrating. Frustrating to the point that I even thought the problem might have been caused by the cavity-ridden guy I had started dating when my gums got bad again for giving me his lame mouth bacteria. I started supplementing a few things, notably K2, D3, and switched back to the flax oil that I had been using when my gums were better. The problem resolved and has not come back and my gums even survived the breakup with bad-teeth guy despite the fact I was eating mainly ice cream. So I don't know if for me, it was more about nutrients I needed to get rather than too much simple sugar.
Ugh, I got back from Europe this week and I feel like I have so much catching up to do. Books to review, emails to answer, projects to finish, mad programming skillz to acquire, apartment to spruce up... and somehow every night I go to bed with so much undone. More about my travels later, as there is an interesting new paper out.
I've written about the need to sample gut flora from different cultures before they are "acculturated" to an industrial diet, so I was delighted to see Human gut microbiome viewed across age and geography. The researchers sampled the gut microbiomes of 115 rural villagers from Malawi, 100 Guahibo Amerindians from Amazonia in Venezuela, and 316 people from the greater metropolitan areas of St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Boulder. They found significant differences between the gut bacteria in these three populations.
Now while you may be familiar with the standard American diet, the diets of the other populations are bit more obscure. The researchers thankfully provided their diet survey in a table in a zip file.
Some common foods the Guahibo ate (24 hour recall) were
Consumption of meat and fish seems rare. Sadly this diet already seem significantly industrialized.
In Malawi some common foods (recall over a month) include
I wish they had used a consistent method for food surveys and provided more information about the diet. Perhaps there needs to be more collaboration in this field with anthropologists?
Each different community of adults had its own particular microbiome signatures, but the Malawaian and Amerindians were less distinct from each other than the Americans were from the two other populations. Interestingly the researchers said that the differences in functions parallel those between carnivorous and herbivorous mammals. Malawaian and Amerindians microbiomes contained more genes for glutamate production, whereas US gut bacteria seemed more focused on degrading it. US gut bacteria also contained more genes for degrading other amino acids like aspartate, proline, ornithine, and lysine, as well as the use of simple sugars. Richer numbers of genes involved in synthesis of biotin and lipoic acid, processing of xenobiotics, and bile salt metabolism, which the researchers thought was related to the higher fat content in the American diet. Malawaian and Amerindian gut bacteria produced more amalyse, which is important for degrading starch.
Another thing they found, which has also been found in other studies, is that as people in all the cultures aged, their gut bacterial populations changed. In infants, Bifidobacterium dominate, but their presence declines in early childhood. Functionally, infant gut bacteria had more genes involved in making folate, whereas adults had more bacteria with genes for metabolizing dietary folate. Adult gut bacteria also contained more genes for producing B12, vitamin B7, and vitamin B1, as well as processing of arginine, glutamate, aspartate, and lysine. Not surprisingly, infants microbiomes were enriched in enzymes involved in foraging of glycans from breastmilk.
The authors concluded that "Together, these findings suggest that the microbiota should be considered when assessing the nutritional needs of humans at various stages of development." I think this is another good reason to question the idea that human breastmilk provides some sort of model for how humans should eat.
Some genes involving glycan processing were more common in the Amerindian and Malawaian baby microbiomes, which the authors thought might be related to differences in glycan content of breastmilk. While all the samples used were from breastfed babies, I would be curious to know whether or not the babies were being exclusively breastfed. Supplementary formula could be an issue in the US and many other cultures use carbohydrate-rich supplementary foods even in young infants. But the researchers say these glycan processing genes decreases during maturity in Malawaian and Amerindian babies as they transition to diets rich in complex plant-derived polysaccharides, whereas they increase with age in US infants as they become exposed to diets rich in easily-absorbed sugars. However, the dietary survey says the Amerindians were eating a lot of sugar every day, so I'm not sure of that.
The Malawaian and Amerindian infant microbiomes were rich in urease gene representation, which was uncommon in both infant and adult American microbiomes. Urease can be used to produce amino acids and recycle nitrogen, which is important when diets are deficient in protein.
The supplement contains a comparison of breast and formula fed babies show that formula-fed microbiomes were more focused on carbohydrate (fructose, mannose) and amino acid metabolism, with more genes involved in biosynthesis of B12.
For me this paper raises more questions than it answers. How plastic are these populations? What happens when you feed an American adult an Amerindian diet? Would the gut bacteria be able to shift or is it too late?
There aren't any studies on this that I know of yet, but I did read a study recently that was very interesting: Modulation of fecal markers relevant to colon cancer risk: a high- starch Chinese diet did not generate expected beneficial changes relative to a Western-type diet. The study didn't look at gut microbiome genes or populations, but it did examine many of the products of the gut microbiome, such as short-chain fatty acids, as well as other colonic markers associated with lower risk of colon cancer. The study basically wanted to see if they could shift these by shifting the diet. Would Australians eating a high-starch "low-income" Chinese diet have the same favorable products and markers that the Chinese had? Unfortunately, after three weeks all the results besides fecal PH were worse! Too bad the study was only three weeks though and the diets actually seem kind of weird, but then again I've never been to Australia:
I guess processed oil has been used for long enough in China that most Chinese people I know, even older people, consider it a traditional food...
Furthermore, how responsive are the gut bacterial populations to cultural change? It seems like the Amerindians are now consuming a significant amount of processed sugar, yet this doesn't seem to be reflected in the gut microbiome. They don't seem to be getting closer to the features of the American gut microbiome that the researchers theorized might be related to sugar consumption. Will this happen over generations? Or are the gut biomes of cultures as resistant to change as those of individuals? It would be interesting to study the gut microbiomes of migrants vs. the original population the migrants came from. Also, I'd be curious about the outlier individuals from the dietary survey, such as the couple of Malawaian individuals who reported consuming meat every day. Does their gut microbiome reflect this? What would happen if you compared American vegetarians with American omnivores?
Also, this adds another layer of complexity when looking at traditional diets. Can you get all the health benefits of a particular culture's diet if you don't have their microbiome? How many health differences between populations are explained by different microbiome heritage rather than diet?
This week I spent almost my entire food budget for the month on one meal and it was completely worth it even if it means I have to eat just ground beef from my dad's farm for the rest of the time.
I grew up on Chick Fil A and Kraft, so I didn't really discover fine dining until I was in college. I think my first date ever was probably at Cafe Luna, one of Champaign-Urbana's few fine-dining establishments, with a graduate student much older than I was. Fresh in my abandonment of veganism, I'll never ever forget the lamb shank I ate there, the way it melted in my mouth. This restaurant was where I was baptized into a love of truffles, duck confit, and aioli. I learned that pleasure from food didn't have to involve overeating, that it could involve more complex emotions, flavors, and aesthetic experiences. My taste and my food budget has never recovered.
In terms of the delicate avant-garde Kaiseki-influenced modernist cuisine that now dominates the upper tiers of fine dining, my first experience was probably at Manresa, in California. After that meal, I wondered if it is possible to become addicted to novelty? I suppose if that is possible, I do suffer from a terrible case of neophilia. The next day after a meal like that, my regular food seems so pallid and devoid of life. It's no wonder so many people who enjoy modernist cuisine are spurred to improve their own cooking skills.
Getting Next tickets was no small feat. I think I am either enormously lucky or very fast at clicking things. It felt good to be one of the thousand that won out, out of many thousands more who tried. Which was surprising, since this year's headlining meal is the most expensive that NEXT has ever done, because it is a tribute to elBulli, which was considered the greatest restaurant in the world before the head chef closed it so he could do other things.
Because I knew this was going to be a long, expensive meal, I vowed to get the most out of it. I read a book called A Day at elBulli, watching the documentary (though really it's mostly raw footage) Cooking in Progress, and watched Anthony Bourdain's episode on the restaurant.
A Day at elBulli is mainly pictures, which are important for getting a sense of what the restaurant was actually like. It was in a somewhat out of the way part of Catalonia, nestled along a picturesque coastline. Seeing pictures of that place, I experienced a wistfulness in my heart, one that I am familiar with. I remember I first felt it one very rainy day in New York City, when I was sitting on the Subway. I had just moved there from Uppsala, Sweden, and was trying to get my bearings. I looked up at the ads that are on the ceilings of every train. One was for Delta, advertising flights to Japan, Brazil, and all sorts of other places. It was almost like that feeling you get when you get a call from someone who you are yearning for. But this feeling was infused with wanderlust. New York City might be the greatest city in the entire world, but in that moment all I wanted to do was experience, once again, the feeling of waking up somewhere new. Perhaps that's why I lived in Manhattan, then Brooklyn, and finally Queens before I left.
If I haven't figured out how to eat in a way that made me healthy, I might have never left Illinois. I was supposed to study abroad my junior year, but one of the reasons I didn't do it was that I honestly didn't know if I could make it. I didn't want to be sick in a strange country. But I got healthy, and I went to Sweden. And it was good that I was pretty healthy there, because my roommates informed me that people didn't go to the hospital there for frivolous reasons. Eventually I did wear my health down a bit with booze and cake, necessitating a cleanup of my diet towards the end, but I never once needed to see a doctor.
Sometimes I wonder if my newfound health is as much about what I do eat, rather than what I don't eat. Sure I feel best when I leave certain things out of my diet, but I'm not particularly delicate. It took months of boozing and caking around Central Europe before I really started to feel it. It reminds me of one study in which they successfully treated GERD with melatonin (I think sleep is important in the causality of GERD) and vitamin and amino acid supplements. My diet when I had GERD probably didn't just have some terrible foods, it really honestly didn't have anything good. I probably didn't get many nutrients that are used to build the linings that protect our gut from potentially injurious constituents of food (any food can be an issues). I've gone from being a delicate flower (at one point I was so sensitive to histamines that I couldn't even have fermented foods) to someone who can really take a punch and keep going. Nothing was as gratifying as going to the allergist and testing positive for NOTHING this fall, when in the past I tested positive to almost everything. Inflammation makes you react to things, good and bad. Once you've got that down and repaired your digestive system, things get easier for many people.
Which is good. Because honestly, god knows what I ate at Next. There were certainly some innovative dishes that used other ingredients in place of things like pasta (cauliflower couscous and a ravioli made out of cuttlefish), but honestly, there were lots of things I ate that I would have trouble eating if I hadn't cultivated some resilience. The restaurant was explicit that this was one cycle where food allergies could not be accommodate. I'm lucky I don't really have any.
When dining, a guest can experience pleasure on four different levels. First, there is a purely physiological pleasure which comes from satisfying hunger; it is the most fundamental pleasure, but no less important for being so. Secondly, there is the pleasure perceived by the senses, which tells us, for example, if a dish is 'delicious,' whether or not we like it, if it is too salty, if we have tasted better in other restaurants or at another time, and so on. Third is the pleasure connected with emotions: everything related to the occasion, such as the attention and generosity with which a guest is treated, the company around the table and the guest's own expectations. Most restaurants are able to satisfy these three types of pleasure.
However, there is another kind of stimulus which is directly related to reason. It is the intellectual pleasure derived from judging the meal according to parameters that are not strictly gastronomic, in which other elements come into play, such as sense of humour, irony, provocation, childhood memories, or -- a very important point -- the appreciation of the level of creativity of a gastronomic proposal. These are aspects which the guest does not expect to find in a restaurant, but in fact they form an integral part of the dish and of the menu. This is what is known at elBulli as 'the sixth sense.' When a new dish is created, the aim is that the guest will enjoy it on all flour levels, and experience all the pleasures that the act of eating can provide.- From A Day at elBulli.
And it was all worth it. I can say I've often regretted buying things, but I've never regretted a journey or experience. In fact, without these, I feel diminished, as they are a major source of creative energy for me. I wish I could find this creative energy elsewhere, in some god or some romance, but it has never been that way for me, though these things also influence me. After a meal like the one I had at Next or a trip like the time I went to Big Sur, I feel broadened and sharp. I feel like all kinds of experiences I have had before have been coalesced and made more clear to me.
I'm not a materialist, I don't care for things. I don't like cars, I hate things that can be exploited. I live a simple life. The only luxuries I have in my life are travel and food. I don't even own a car—I use a small car that is here. It's not even my car. I use it to come to work sometimes. Really, to get from place to place, I just take a taxi. I have a cell phone that I use a lot. I use the phone to get organized, but on July 30, when I start a new life, I'm going to remove the phone from my life."- Ferran Adria
A tidepool, lying by the ocean in the sun, the curling bark of a tree I found in a park in Madrid, the colors in the drunk dream sequence in Dumbo, the way the first fish I ever caught smelled, a kiss you were not supposed to take, scratching the skin of a lime in my cousin's orchard, playing in my mother's garden when I was eight, sitting with friends in a smoky bar in Europe, the scent of the forest floor in Sweden, seeing El Greco paintings for the first time, a dream I had about Japan. Things too little to be easily remembered, except when the senses are tantalized.
cauliflower cous-cous with solid aromatic herb sauce
When I got home I was somewhat drunk (which is why this is pretentious and rambling) and I thought about what a meal would be like if it were such avant-garde cuisine, but influenced by the Paleolithic. What if you did a meal that went beyond the banal and really reached into the depths of that era. The dish above was a big influence because of the variety of vegetal flavors surrounding the "cous-cous." Some of them were unfamiliar, even alienating.
The concept of alienating food entranced me because one thing I find is that people are often unable to conceive of the fact that the diet of ancient hominids was enormously diverse, containing foods that most people have never even thought of as foods. Many of the foods and flavors you find in paleobotany are profoundly alienating to the modern consumer. Some of them were multi-purpose as well, with the lines blurring between food, medicine, and recreational psychoactive substance. I would include such alienating flavors to emphasize the remoteness of the era. Of course maybe I wouldn't include so many psychoactives for safety reasons. Cocktails could stand in.
However, despite being strange and alien, the meal would also serve to humanize ancient hominids. Evidence shows that ancient hominids used natural materials not just as tools, but as decoration, utilizing shells, natural pigments, and feathers for aesthetic purposes. Some of the plants they used also don't seem to have much purpose, beyond imparting flavor. In incorporating these ideas, the meal would fight asceticism with aestheticism. Such associations would be emphasized with references to Japanese Kaiseki, which is a notable form of cuisine because many plants that were used in the Paleolithic are no longer used in modern cuisine at all...except in Japan. This also emphasizes the complexity and diversity that characterizes both Japanese and Paleolithic edibles.
Oh, also with inspiration from The Knife's electro-opera about Darwin
Some papers I read while drunk included:
Of course I had to substitute some things and even then, this menu includes things that would require a lot of foraging to procure, since they have never been commercialized. The format is mainly based on botanicals in Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing.
1. Alchemilla vulgari = medicinal plant in rose family
Rosehip cocktail with bitters
2. Pine-smoked oysters with various pigmented powders and seaweed "feathers"
3. Brachypodium ramosum = bunch grasses related to oats=
Oat crusted deer tenderloin with wild mushrooms and edible fried smoked insects
4. Arctium lappa = burdock, Anthriscus caucalis = relative of carrot
Japanese burdock and wild carrot salad
5. Bromus secalinus= relative of rye
boar liver pate on rye cracker with foam of blood and small edible flowers
6. Cyperus badius = relative of chufa =
Spanish Tigernut Horchata cocktail
7. Persicaria hydropiper = water pepper, tastes similar to Sichuan pepper, though water pepper is actually eaten in Japan, but I'm not sure I could find it here =
Sichuan pepper & salt crawfish
8. Scirpus lacustris = bulrush
Bitter sprouts and bamboo shoots, eel, cooked in bison fat butter with a garnish of fried fish bones
9. Sparganium erectum / : Typha angustifolia / Typha latifolia= bur reed (medicinal) / cattail rhizome =
cattail flour/buckwheat blini with roe, hazelnut “sour cream,” and yellow cattail pollen “golden” powder
10. Botrychium ternatum = fern root =
bracken starch mochi
Also, the table is decorated with wood chips and lamps made from small animal skulls hang on strings from the ceiling. On this menu is printed:
From Nabakov’s Pale Fire
What moment in the gradual decay
Does resurrection choose? What year? What day?
Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape?
Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism: other men die; but I
Am not another; therefore I’ll not die.
Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,
A singing in the ears. In this hive I’m
Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had
Been able to imagine life, what mad,
Impossible, unutterably weird,
Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared!
Coming soon: My new book, the opposite of Paleo Comfort Foods, which will be titled Pretentious Postmodern Molecular PaleoGastronomy. All the recipes will require a fully equipped laboratory and ingredients that can only be found in remote mountain wilderness. However, I have been having trouble finding a publisher.
Now that it's been over four years since I first heard about "paleo" diets, I have been reflecting on how such diets have worked for me. When I first heard about paleo, I definitely thought it was a solution to all my problems and it worked really well for most of them. The original bane of my life in the pre-paleo era, GERD, is gone. But my IBS symptoms were harder to fix and even now I find myself experimenting. In the beginning, I often thought the solution was more "purity" in my diet. I thought if I just were better at my diet, then my problems would go away. But IBS is too complex for that. And it doesn't seem to care about evolution all that much. While evolution can be useful for hypothesizing, my gut is the product of a C-section birth, a subpar diet for almost two decades, and many many courses of evolution. I think of my maternal grandmother who is in her nineties and claims to have only had a stomachache once in her life. Compared to her stomach, my own stomach is a rather unfortunate thing.
So when I ate a pure "paleo" diet, what happened? My stomach problems got WORSE.
Luckily I found the SCD (specific carbohydrate diet). It's really for people with worse problems than mine, but it clued me into some of the things that were going on, namely that there was something wrong with how I process certain carbohydrates. Well, not just me, but my own microbiome in my gut. They were taking something I was eating and having a party consuming it and belching out all kinds of bad things. Bloating, cramping, gas, bouts of IBS-C and IBS-D were the result.
Unfortunately SCD is both too strict and not strict enough. The "legal" list of SCD foods, like the typical "paleo" list, contains foods I cannot digest properly. The specific carbohydrates I'm sensitive to are not the same as those that the SCD concerns itself with. I ended up just going carnivore for awhile, which helped with a great many things, but I had other symptoms on that diet (like extremely low blood pressure) and it is on the pretty extreme of restrictive. I also think that some products of carbohydrate fermentation are important.
I have no idea where I first encountered FODMAPs, which stands for
But the theory is similar to the SCD, which is that for certain people, certain carbohydrates aren't processed correctly by the gut and end up feeding bad bacteria. But I think it was more useful for me because it breaks down the issue into a variety of potential baddies to experiment with. Lactose intolerance is the most famous type and all the other types are similar in that they can be dose-dependent. That's why I was so confused at first. Sometimes I'd eat potentially bad food X and feel fine and other times I'd feel terrible. Amount effects it, but that's the tip of the iceberg, because the context can affect it too. For example, with fructose, the amount of glucose ingested at the same time can affect tolerance.
So far you can see where my experiments have left me vs. the typical paleo diet:
It seems I have some fructose intolerance, but my tolerance is comparatively high. I can eat an apple, but if I start eating a bunch of dried apples (more concentrated fructose), then I start getting into problems.
Then there are foods that I can tolerate almost none of, such as brassica vegetables like cauliflower. Many "paleo" recipes use cauliflower in place of rice. I am much worse off if I eat that compared to real rice and in fact I've found that rice soothes my stomach quite nicely when it's upset, particularly when cooked in broth as a congee.
I'm still torn about wheat. I think I've tried every possible type of wheat at this point, including wheat that was fermented to remove gluten and a variety of "heritage" wheats. I still didn't tolerate it, which makes me think that it was never about gluten for me, but about fiber.
It's also pretty important to self-experiment and not just write entire foods off because they contain something that might be the culprit in causing you problems with another food. Onions are a major issue for me, but I've found I can tolerate them pretty well if they are cooked into oblivion (for example, in a sauce), which frees me to enjoy certain delicious Indian dishes. Tomatoes are only an issue for me raw.
I think this jives very well with the evolutionary idea that cooking was important in human evolution because it transferred digestion to the small intestine rather than the large. That seems to be exactly what is happening here. The large intestine is where fermentation takes place, so if fermentable carbohydrates are the issue, then cooking them to make them more available to the small intestine could help. Of course there is all kinds of fancy cooking science here I'm not getting into, which I need to research further. There is also the issue of tolerance improving if you manage to heal the gut lining and balance the gut bacteria somehow. I think that overall my tolerance has improved as I've eaten healthier. I used to not tolerate spicy food at all, which was practically a tragedy for me since I love it, but now I eat it quite often without an issue.
But people are always asking me to do an IBS post or series. And I kind of can't because it's been just all one weird experiment of me trying to figure out what I can tolerate and at what level. That's why I'm such a huge proponent of self-experimentation and not such a huge fan of dietary dogma.
When I first moved into the college dorms, one of my favorite meals was Special K (with those freeze-dried "berries") floating in tan-colored soy milk. It was healthy and I thought it tasted pretty good. Looking back I shudder because it was quite clearly the culprit in many of the stomach issues I had, as it was rich in the dreaded Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols (FODMAPS).
Once I realized that soymilk was one of the major causes of the bloating and other fun stuff I struggled with, I never bought soy milk again.
But I've never been anti-soy. In fact, I can't imagine life without the culinary treasures of soy sauce and miso. For me, changing my diet was about shifting staples, not clamping down on the margins. I'm only willing to do that if absolutely necessary. I don't think soy is a problem unless you are getting a large percentage of your calories from it.
And through my explorations of Asian cuisine I've come to appreciate soy for what it, which is a potent substrate for fermentation. That's why soy milk upset my stomach so much. But luckily, long ago someone figured out how to ferment it outside the body, creating rich salty flavors that characterize miso and soy sauce.
It's by no means a recent food. There is new evidence that humans were using wild soybeans 9000 years ago and that domestication occurred 5,500 years ago.
American vegetarians embraced Asian soy products a long time ago, but it wasn't until I started actually eating authentic Asian food that it struck me on how much they were missing out on. In Asian cuisine, soy is an extender of animal and seafood products, creating potent health and flavor synergies.
If you think tempeh is just some bland crappy paste-board-like soy concoction, you need to fly to Amsterdam and have homemade tempeh in a rich briny fermented shrimp and black pepper sauce. I've never ever had tempeh like that in America.
And I've found that even unfermented soy doesn't really bother my stomach. Oh, but only when it's served in a Korean restaurant that makes broth from scratch, boiling animal bones for days to achieve a creaminess, then boiling fresh homemade tofu and chunks of ox blood in the broth. It's digestible and much more delicious than it sounds, particularly when you pour some of the homemade kimchee into the broth.
Another unsung hero in Korean cooking is fermented soybean-red pepper paste, Gochujang, which makes sriracha seem bland. It works so well with beef that it's heresy to put it on some vegetarian brown rice gunk. It almost always contains barley though, so stay away from it if you don't eat wheat, though I'd wonder how much of it could be harmful because fermentation can destroy gluten.
And really, there is nothing like liver or beef belly marinated in soy sauce. I know some folks use coconut aminos because they think they are reacting to soy sauce, but I don't think there is much in most soy sauce to react to, except for amines, which are present in coconut aminos too.
But Asian food hasn't been immune for the industrialization of soy products, which leads to general mediocrity and upset stomachs all across the globe. The latest issue of my new favorite magazine, Lucky Peach, has an amazing article about miso. There are a great many types of miso, but the miso that most Asian restaurants serve is a powdered, pasteurized, fortified, bleached concoction that barely deserves to be called shinshu miso. But it's bland, ships easily, stores easily, and requires no skill to make into soup.
The same thing has happened to broth and many other traditional foods. It's hard to find a restaurant that makes its own broths with bones rather than a powder containing MSG and other assorted non-food additives. Many Koreans now make a Gochujang that isn't fermented at all.
The only good trend is the post-WWII trend of combining butter with miso or soy sauce. You can create some incredibly rich and wonderful sauces this way. I just now enjoyed some scallops with a soy-sauce browned butter glaze.
For me the fascinating thing about soy sauce and miso is how deep and rich the flavors are, yet they do not compel me to overeat. I think it's a function of their complexity. They are delicious, but have an underlying funkiness. It's important, like fish sauce is to SE Asian cooking, but you definitely don't want to overdo it.
It's funny because GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease) is one of the main reasons I changed my diet, but I don't blog about it much. I guess it's because I don't have it anymore. Neither do my sister or father. I think my case was the toughest because I had been on the evil proton pump inhibitors the longest. It probably took me six months to really feel better. I haven't had it since, except once when I was coming out of a long backpacking trip through Eastern Europe that involved a lot of bad sleep, alcohol, and cake. I'd also gotten strep throat in Hungary and had taken ibuprofen as much as I could get away with in order to prevent my trip from being ruined. But my stomach felt ruined when I got back to homebase in Uppsala. I had some GERD symptoms and had to eat a careful diet again to get rid of them.
I feel bad for the people who don't opt for a more holistic approach and instead cling to the notion that it's "acid" or "spice" in food that causes GERD, which has never been proven. Some studies show that they can make symptoms worse, but there is no evidence they cause GERD.
And I knew I could NEVER live a life without meyer lemons or Thai curries.
Through the years I've mused on what could have caused my GERD. I have a list in a .txt file with my main candidates.
- dysfunctional levels of prostaglandins: either too low from NSAID use (which compromises stomach integrity) or too high from excessive consumption of omega-6 (inflammation)
- poor nutrition which prevents the stomach from repairing itself
- allergens that cause or exacerbate inflammation
- poor digestive system integrity
- imbalanced bacteria
- stress from bad sleep quality or other factors
*added this one: improper levels of acid, too high or too low, and often at the wrong time
I mention inflammation a lot and I think it's a big factor and why I've never found that GERD was tied to specific foods. I also think it's why GERD is more common in overweight people, not because they are overweight, but because people who are overweight tend to have more inflammation.
Unfortunately inflammation has many many causes. I think a multi-pronged approach to GERD:
- corrects fatty acid imbalance by lowering omega-6 consumption and increasing omega-3 consumption (but be careful with fish oil since it can irritate the stomach in the same way NSAIDs can, so lowering omega-6 can be more powerful)
- improves nutritional quality with things like offal, bone marrow, roe, and other nutrient-dense foods
- balances bacteria through probiotics and carbohydrate restriction (SCD theory)
- avoids potentially allergenic foods like gluten while recovering, which can be tricky since some of these allergenic foods are "paleo" such as eggs, so a proper elimination diet is important
- avoids NSAIDS
- corrects sleep problems by sleeping regular 7-8 hours in nice dark room
-* restores normal acid production with proper protein/nutrient consumption and restoring integrity of stomach lining