This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
A few months ago when my friends and were planning another themed dinner party, I submitted the idea for Mesopotamia on a whim and it was picked. So I delved a bit into cooking from the Fertile Crescent, where many foods we eat every day originate. There are "recipes" that exist from this time and place, in the form of tablets from Babylon in the Yale collection written in cuneiform. The problem is that these terse "recipes" have certain ingredients that have not been conclusively translated. Perhaps archeology will fill in the gaps. Archeologist Patrick McGovern, for example, used chemical analysis of pottery residue to reconstruct an ancient Phrygian drink and brew something similar for Dogfish Head called Midas Touch.
Jean Bottero published the most complete translation of the Yale Tablet recipes, but interestingly, food bloggers have contested some of his translations. Jean supposedly loved to cook, but perhaps held a French contempt for other cuisines, declaring the Yale Tablet recipes not fit for anyone except his "worst enemies."
It is interesting because a lot of the recipes are for broth and I've been been thinking about the influence French cooking has had on how many people make broths. I sometimes get emails about how I prepare broth and sometimes people are shocked I don't remove the fat from my broth. I leave it in the vast majority of the time.
But in traditional French cooking, which has influenced so much of the Western world, the fat is often removed in various ways such as skimming. This reaches its pinnacle in French consommé, in which egg whites are used to effectively remove the fat. That's cool, but I don't really feel the need to do that at home. I think this is partially because I have been so influenced by Korean food, in which broths are often purposefully cloudy or fatty.
The removal of fat is probably a recent development. The first broths ever made were probably made in the later paleolithic as part of a survival strategy known as grease processing. The very purpose of breaking and boiling bones was to probably acquire extra fat with the added bonus of the savory umami bones impart into liquid. I think a paleolithic human would be horrified by the process of consommé, which involves essentially wasting both the egg whites and a bunch of fat (though if you have a dog at home, they appreciate eating the leftover "fat raft").
Apparently Babylonian broths were similar to paleolithic and Korean broths, in that they were nice and fatty. If you don't like fat, you might call them greasy, but a good cook should be able to design the rest of the recipe in order to make them more balanced.
Similarly, whereas most modern cooks use purified salt, ancient cooks were probably more likely to cook with salted condiments (similar to fish sauce or soy sauce)and other foods like salt-fish or salt-pork. And probably if they were making beer, they were also making other fermented foods like pickles. Unfortunately, the fragments on the tablets don't have much information on the specifics of these things, but I would not be surprised if pickles or salt-cured foods were some of the unidentified ingredients like suhitinnu, though some believe there are spices or even vegetables.
Either way, it was an excuse to whip up some Middle Eastern ingredients that possibly have a long history. Harissa was out, because it relies on peppers, which didn't exist in Babylon since they came to this region of the world through the Columbian exchange. But like how Korea was making kimchi with other Ingrid before the Columbian exchange introduced peppers, it is likely the Babylonians made something like harissa, which is so good because it's essentially a bunch of delicious spices marinating together. I made my regular harissa recipe, but used more garlic and other spices: cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and caraway being the dominant ones (you can see what spices I have on my Trello board). I also made some delicious preserved lemons, though the Babylonians would have more likely had a type of citron.
One ingredient I had a lot of fun with was some tears of mastic I bought in Greektown here. I first had mastic in New York City at a goat ice cream shop (yes, really) called Victory Garden, where they used it to flavor soft serve ice cream. I have a strong affinity for evergreen flavors that evoke both forests and cathedrals, so I was addicted to mastic immediately. It is often sold as "tears", since it is the harvested resin of the mastic tree, and I bought the lowest grade small ones to experiment with. I ground them with a mortar and pestle and made some teas, which are supposed to be very good for your stomach lining, though you have to be careful when adding the mastic to liquid. If you don't add it slowly it literally turns to gum and you realize where humans probably got the idea for chewing gum. There is evidence that ancient humans chewed tree resins. But that doesn't bother me too much, it actually makes a rather nice gum, albeit with a fickle texture. Mastic has a very complex flavor, being both bitter and sweet, but that makes it actually rather perfect for balancing fatty foods.
The small mastic tears I use
I decided to make a goat leg since I had one in my freezer. I hadn't cooked one in a long time, so I googled for some recipes and found one that suggested marinating in beets in order to give an attractive red color. I thought I'd go one further and use the beets for the acidic component of the marinade as well by using some Scrumptious Pantry pickled beets I had in the fridge. Full disclosure is that Scrumptious Pantry invited me to the Localicious event at the Chicago Good Food Festival, but I've been buying their excellent products from the Green Grocer since I started shopping there. At Localicious I sampled many good local foods, like the genius Billy Sunday deviled eggs that had liver mousse whipped into the yolk, and cider from Red Streak. While I was getting some locally cured ham from the chef at Big Jones, my friend and I bumped into a man and we promptly apologized, only to realize it was Sandor Katz, who is largely considered a fermentation god. I love my copy of his Wild Fermentation. We chatted a bit and various things, including the excellent practice of marinating meat in pickles, which he has also tried with good results. God knows what marinating meat in pickles does, I get the impression that pickle juice is a much more complex in its actions than plain lemon or lime juice.
The rest of the goat leg marinade was Midas Touch beer, Wild Blossom mead, and good olive oil. The next day I made my spice/aromatic mixture, which was plenty of shallots, olive oil, garlic, preserved lemons, pistachios, sesame seeds, mastic, cinnamon, fennel, licorice, black pepper, fish sauce, cumin, dates, and fig vinegar processed until smooth and rubbed all over the leg. I braised the leg in the marinating liquid diluted with duck stock for a couple of hours. It was delicious- tender, red, meaty, earthy, slightly sweet, and highly aromatic. I served with some full-fat Greek yogurt mixed with sumac.
Thanks Jen Moran Photography!
I wish I could give exact ingredients to my recipes, but I usually improvise when I cook. I didn't grow up with fancy food- I loved Hot Pockets, Lunchables, Chick File A, and Kraft Handy Snacks. But I was lucky enough to spend a lot of my childhood outside in the woods. I think that helped me develop a "nose" for flavor, and flavor is as much about the nose as the mouth. I have found memories of sweet honeysuckle, crisp wild chives, pungent tulip trees, balmy pine needles, and the fragrant vines of wisteria. When I have my own children, I hope they can be as exposed to things like these as I was, as I think they are not just important in giving children an appreciation of nature, as to give them other sensory experiences that can help them appreciate many other things that draw on nature for inspiration later in life. If you didn't grow up in such an environment, I think educating yourself about flavors and just trying lots of diverse and interesting foods can help you learn to improvise. As far as educating yourself about flavor, I started a book recently called Taste What You're Missing which is written by a food developer who had to develop her palette as an adult on the job, and so far it's pretty good. Also, have plenty of spoons so you can taste while you are cooking and adjust. I tend to use at least seven different spoons a day, which makes me feel very glad I now have a dishwasher.
In the debate surrounding the NYC ban on large soft drinks earlier this year, the argument came up that we had to regulate them because liquid calories are evolutionarily novel and inappropriate for our species to consume because we cannot consume them moderately and their metabolism is harmful to our bodies. At the time I had already started reading Patrick McGovern's Uncorking the Past, which looks at human history through the very lens of liquid carbohydrates.
Not soda, something a bit more delicious and perhaps more enticing. I'm talking about alcoholic drinks. It was in the form of such a drink that I first encountered McGovern's work. I was not pulling in very much money at the time and my indulgence in luxury food and drink primarily came from volunteering at ritzy galas. After one long night, I was delighted to find a vendor had left quite a lot of good beer behind. One of them was Dogfish Head's Midas Touch. With a musky wine-like flavor, it was clear this was not a normal beer.
The idea for the beer came from a golden residue found in a tomb where either the real King Midas or his father was buried around 700 B.C. Archeologist Patrick McGovern had analyzed this residue, teasing out the various ingredients using infrared spectrometry, gas and liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. Grapes, honey, and barley had were the ingredients of this ancient beverage. Together with the brewers at renowned microbrewery Dogfish Head, McGovern set out to recreate something with these elements for the modern palette. The result was well-received and the first of the Ancient Ales series went to market.
McGovern is the "Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia." He primarily works at analyzing ancient pottery residues to figure out what exactly our ancestors were imbibing in. And for fun he recreates some of these beverages for modern people to enjoy.
Uncorking the Past says "No containers have yet been recovered from the Palaeolithic period, not even one made from stone. Objects made of wood, grass, leather, and gourds have disintegrated and disappeared." Since it came out, several Paleolithic pottery specimens have been described, mainly from China. Earlier this year, one set of shards was dated to 20,000 years ago. It would not be surprising to me if much earlier pottery is discovered in Africa. Evidence for the earliest food grind stones used to process seeds has been dated to 105,000 years ago. It is possible though that humans in that region were using other containers for liquid such as skins or gourds, but pottery would have been a major advance useful for extracting fat from bones, detoxifying and cooking starches, and creating fermented drinks.
Such drinks would have not been terribly novel even then. As McGovern points out, our evolutionary line is frugivorous in origin, having inhabited warm tropical climates where "as the fruit matured, it would have fermented on the tree, bush, and vine. Fruits with broken skins, oozing liquid, would have been attacked by yeast and the sugars converted into alcohol. Such a fruit slurry can reach an alcohol content of 5 percent or more." Many cases of wild animals getting drunk on ripe fruit have been documented.
Malaysian tree shrews, subsist mainly on fermented palm nectar that is up to 3.8% alcohol. The researchers concluded:
The pentailed treeshrew is considered a living model for extinct mammals representing the stock from which all extinct and living treeshrews and primates radiated. Therefore, we hypothesize that moderate to high alcohol intake was present early on in the evolution of these closely related lineages.
Wherever primates live, they seem drawn to sugars. Chimpanzees use tools to gather honey in Africa. Hominids there have been adapt at exploiting honey for a very long time, devising elaborate gathering systems to thwart the aggressiveness of native bees. Surveys of foraging tribal peoples like the Hadza and Pygmies have revealed that honey is the food they most prefer. It can also be used to make alcohol:
Many African peoples have been drinking some variation of a fermented honey beverage for a very long time throughout the continent. The strongest versions have been reported from the Rift Valley, where added fruit (e.g., of the sausage tree, Kigellia africana, and tamarind), with additional yeast to spur an extended fermentation, boosted the alcohol concentration. Sub-Saharan Africa is a honey-eater's and mead-drinker's paradise.
It's not just shrews that enjoy palm wine either. Evidence for human exploitation of palm goes back 18,000 years in Africa:
The most important species for making palm wine are the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), the ron or Palmyra palm (Borassus aethiopum), and the raphia palm (Raphia vinifera), which are concentrated along the humid east and west coasts as well as in the dense jungles of the interior...A healthy tree can produce nine or ten liters a day and about 750 liters over half a year...Within two hours, palm wine ferments to about a 4 percent alcohol content; give it a day, and the alcohol level goes up to 7 or 8 percent
Now back to those food grind stones. The papers that describe them typically talk as if they were used to make the world's crappiest bread out of miserable wild grains. Other grind stones had more obvious uses- they ground pigments for decoration. Why not smear your face with makeup and go out and party? What if the "food" grind stones were really used for making alcoholic drinks? What if people domesticated grains mainly to use in the creation of alcoholic drinks? Seems like more of an incentive than making bitter flat fibrous bread disks.
It would also explain why the wild relatives of so many grains are mystifying. Looking at teosinte, the wild ancestor of corn, it's kind of baffling why humans would have bothered with the plant at all:
A series of careful DNA studies identified teosinte (genus Tripsacum) as the wild ancestor of maize. This mountain grass grows in the Rio Balsas drainage of southwestern Mexico. One cannot imagine a less inspiring plant to domesticate. The ears of this primitive corn, which are barely three centimeters long and contain only five to twelve kernels, are trapped in a tough casing. Even if you manage to free up the kernels, their nutrient value is essentially nil.
The mystery might be solved by quids, chewed and spit out fibrous plant material. This might sound gross, but chewing of place materials and spitting it into a container is an alcohol-making process that has been documented around the world. It seems very likely that the stalks of teosinte were used for this purpose.
The human mouth converts the starch to more easily fermentable sugar using amylyse. Some mouths are better at this than others. Starch consuming peoples typically have a greater amylyse copy numbers, though all humans have a greater copy number than primates like chimpanzees and booboos. "Higher AMY copy numbers and protein levels probably improve the digestion of starchy foods and may buffer against the fitness-reducing effects of intestinal disease." Stephan Guyenet and I have discussed how the copy number thing is interesting because salivary amylyse, even at high copy numbers, contributes very little to digestion of starch relative to pancreatic amylase. What is the increased copy number for salivary amylyse for then? Perhaps for chewing starches like rice and corn to make delicious alcoholic beverages.
Chicha made with saliva remains an important part of the diet of many South American tribes, and a woman's ability to make it is important for her husband's social status. It is rude to refuse it, as this account written up in Salon describes
Patton maintains that the bulk of an Achuar’s daily calories do not come from meat. They come from chicha, a mildly alcoholic, vaguely nutritious, watered-down manioc mash. Achuar men drink up to four gallons a day.Isaac’s wife and mother are in constant motion, serving bowls of chicha to the 10 or so guests. Chicha is the backbone of Achuar society. As with the ankle bone and the knee bone, you feel an unalterable pressure to accept. Chicha is the holy communion, the Manischewitz, the kava-kava of Achuar life. It’s present at every ceremony, every visit, every meal. An Achuar woman’s desirability rests in no small part on her skill at chicha brewing and serving.
Given the amount of calories and nutrients such beverages can provide, it amazes me that many ethnographical and anthropological surveys seem to ignore or downplay their presence, as if they were just mere recreation.
Corn chicha, widely consumed in South America, could not only explain the domestication of teosinte, but it could also account for the fact that isotope studies during the time of corn's domestication don't seem to show people got their protein from corn:
Some very interesting results emerged when human bones from sites throughout the New World were examined. Because maize had been domesticated by about 6ooo B.P., one would have expected to see a specific carbon-isotope composition that reflected the increased consumption of maize, but it was strangely missing. Some scientists have proposed an explanation for this anomaly. Because the analyses measured only the collagen in bone, its main proteinaceous connective tissue, they were biased toward detecting high-protein foods. Solid foods made from maize, including gruel or bread (e.g., tortillas), fit this requirement, but not fermented beverages like maize chicha, largely composed of sugar and water. Consequently, if people between 6ooo and 3000 B.P. were consuming their maize as chicha, very little protein would have been incorporated into the collagen of their bones. The researchers speculated that humans began using maize as a solid food only after its ear had been substantially enlarged by selective breeding, around 3000 B.P. After this point, the carbon isotope compositions of bones dramatically changed.
Interestingly, going further north, the Native Americans there didn't seem to have any alcoholic beverages, or if they did, they had been spread from the South. Charle's Mann's 1491 discusses the hypothesis that the North and Southern Native Peoples were peopled differently, South America being populated by a sea-faring coastal society, rather than from Beringia up North. McGovern describes the culture of the coastal peoples, who consumed a tantalizing array of berries, fish, mollusks, wild tubers, mastodon meat and fat (they processed enough fat that it congealed on the floor, which my sister's roommate reenacted recently by pouring some bacon grease directly down the drain), bulrushes, and seaweed. It is theorized that the cold snap of the Younger Dryas around 13,000 BC may have forced them to rely more and more on underground tubers, spurring on the domestication of the potato.
However, the Siberians, like the North Americans, do not have alcoholic beverages (that we know of at least), relying on other resources for a buzz:
In place of any alcoholic beverage, the Siberian peoples engaged in shamanistic practices based on the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria). When European explorers finally braved the frigid tundra of Siberia, beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, they recorded how the shaman often dressed in a deer costume with antlers, like the Palaeolithic creature depicted in Les Trois Freres cave (see chapter i). After consuming the mushroom, he would beat on a large drum, whose monotonous repetition reinforced the effects of the active hallucinogenic compounds (ibotenic acid and muscimole) and took him into the ancestral dreamtime.
Northern peoples in the Americas also smoked tobacco. Meanwhile, people in the Southern parts North America certainly did imbibe in alcohol. The Pima who are so infamous in nutritional circles consumed a sweet cactus wine. The health effects of another regional beverage, Pulque, which is made by fermenting agave sap, have been explored a bit. It was found that among highland tribes that consume it, it accounts for much of the iron and Vitamin C consumption in pregnant women. Pregnant women who consume too much or none are more likely to have low-BMI and reduced mental performance infants. Consumption of pulque might also increase the bioavailability of vitamins in other traditional foods.
The use of agave in fermented beverages should be considered when looking at data from that region that suggests a high fiber consumption from these plants, particularly given the presence of quids and the fact that these fermented beverages could enhance digestion of fructooligosaccharides in these plants. I've seen such papers conclude that this means that humans in these regions ate absurd amounts of fiber and we should emulate them. What is more likely: that anatomically moderns humans were eating 255 grams of fiber a day from plants like agave, well above what any known living culture consumes, or that they were making something a bit like tequila?
It is possible that such drinks have been under emphasized because of very real issues of alcoholism that plague many modern indigenous peoples. However, most of these traditional alcoholic beverages are not like the modern alcohol that is abused. Indigenous beverages are typically 3-6% alcohol, seasonal and contain many nutrients and phytochemicals, which are biologically active plant chemicals. McGovern's lab has been working on exploring the medicinal properties of many of these phytochemicals.
McGovern describes how many of the early beverages in the Middle East, ancestors of our modern wines and beers, contained potent medicinals. Early grape wines, for example, often contained tree resins:
Tree resins have a long and noble history of use by humans, extending back into Palaeolithic times. They could be used as glues and were perhaps even chewed to give pain relief, as suggested by lumps of birch resin with tooth marks that were found in a Neolithic Swiss lake dwelling...Resinated wines were greatly appreciated in antiquity, as we have come to see in analyzing wines from all over the Middle East, extending from the Neolithic down to the Byzantine period. Although some wine drinkers today turn up their noses at a resinated wine, now made only in Greece as retsina, the technique is analogous to ageing in oak. The result can actually be quite appealing: the Gaia Estate's Ritinitis has a mildly citrusy flavor, achieved by adding a very slight touch of Aleppo pine resin to a Greek grape variety. Even the Romans added resins such as pine, cedar, terebinth (known as the "queen of resins"), frankincense, and myrrh to all their wine except extremely fine vintages. According to Pliny the Elder, who devoted a good part of book 14 of his Natural History to resinated wines, myrrh-laced wine was considered the best and most expensive.
It is a powerful reminder to consider ancient diets holistically, that things were not just consumed for their nutritive value, but for recreational, medicinal, and religious purposes. And possibly some of these substances were "unwise" traditions and may account for some of the diseases found in mummies and skeletal remains if people drank too much or adulterated their beverages with carcinogens and other poisons. Even today, adaptation to alcohol seems uneven and imperfect in humans, as many Asians who experience Alcohol Flush Reaction will attest. Distilled high-alcohol spirits are also very much an evolutionary novelty. As someone with alcoholism running in the family, I very much understand that consumption of these kinds of alcohol can be difficult for certain people to moderate with terrible, even deadly consequences.
I think renewed study and emphasis on fermented alcoholic beverages in human evolution will provide much insight into human adaptations to food and the development of domesticated crops. Even with the knowledge we have now, I think it's wholly inappropriate to describe liquid carbohydrates as evolutionarily novel. Soda is novel in that it is a liquid carbohydrate devoid of any of the nutrients or phytochemicals in indigenous beverages, but mainly we need to look to modern science and biochemistry to tell us what effect soda has on the body and mind.
It's also fascinating to see some of these ancient beverages recreated and revived. I've since tasted several of McGovern's collaborations with Dogfish Head, such as Chateau Jiahu, which is made of rice, honey, and fruit recipe gleaned from 9000 year old Chinese pottery. I've also enjoyed some of the more modern spit-free chicha at several Peruvian restaurants and being a lightweight, I appreciate that it's pretty low in alcohol and also very tasty. There has also been renewed interest in home brewing ancient herbal ales. You can do it yourself with the book Sacred & Herbal Healing Beers. There are also some herbal beers on the market. I've enjoyed William Brother's spruce, seaweed, and heather beers. Unfortunately, none of these beers are gluten-free, which is slightly disappointing since the original Jiahu pottery probably did not contain barley.
I enjoyed Uncorking the Past, but it does read a bit like a textbook at times, which is why it took me so long to get through it. I'm looking forward to enjoying more of his brews though. Dogfish Head is even tried making Chicha the old fashioned way, though it didn't exactly work out, since it was more labor intensive than they expected.
Another hypothesis is that lack of SCFAs is behind such diseases of civilization. A SCFA called butyrate provides some insight into this. Butyrate is the preferred fuel of the colonic epithelial cells and also plays a major role in the regulation of cell proliferation and differentiation (Wong, de Souza, Kendall, Emam, & D. J. a Jenkins, 2006). Lower than normal levels have been found in patients with several diseases, notably types of colitis and inflammatory bowel disorder. Studies show such diseases can be treated through application of butyrate in the colon. That and the fact that some studies show complete remission through bacteriotherapy transplants point to these diseases being caused by disturbed populations of gut bacteria. Interestingly, these diseases are common in captive populations of apes and unheard of in wild apes (McKenna et al., 2008).
Bacteria affect butyrate production, but so do dietary inputs. Certain fibers produce more butyrate than others in humans, whether or not this differs between primates would be an interesting avenue of research (Smith, Yokoyama, & German, 1998).
Figure 1: Butyrate production in response to fiber
Interestingly, one of the top producers is something known as “resistant starch.” Resistant starch represents the growing nuance in understanding of fiber, since it is a starch that acts like a fiber in terms of acting as a bacterial substrate. It first showed up on the scientific radar when scientists found that low rates of colon cancer were not just found in populations with high-fiber diets, but those with high-starch diets (O'Keefe, Kidd, Espitalier-Noel, & Owira, 1999)1. Researchers found that a particular starch resisted digestion and ended up being fermented by colonic flora. They called this resistant starch and it is found mostly in cooked starches, some raw starches like green bananas, and some rough unprocessed grains and seeds. The former is termed type III and is a major part of the diets of many foraging populations who consume pounded and cooked starches like cassava, taro, true yam, and sago palm.
Whether or not humans are better adapted to certain types of resistant starch remains unexplored, but could account from some inconsistent results in studies that used type I resistant starch, mostly found in grains and seeds that would have probably been relatively uncommon in our ancestral diet. These studies have shown poor results and others with promising results are marred by high drop out rates due to unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects (Rinne et al., 2005; de Vrese & Marteau, 2007; Vuksan et al., 2007). Whether some populations would do better on this type of starch versus others would be an interesting investigation, but very few cultures consume large amounts of unmilled seeds and grains.
What type of starch we are best adapted to is interesting because the role of starch in human evolution is so controversial. Richard Wrangham has suggested that utilization of cooked starches was one of the dietary quality innovations that fed our rapidly expanding expensive brain tissue as it evolved towards hominid size (Wrangham, 2003). Recent analysis throws a wrench in that theory because it suggests habitual use of fire came after encephalization, about 300,000 years ago (Roebroeks & Villa, 2011). However, this does not mean that such cooked starches did not change humans, even if it reduces their significance in human evolution.
The burgeoning field of archeological starch grain analysis has transformed our view of hominids once thought to be mostly carnivorous. Microfossils on Neanderthal teeth from around 44,000 years ago show evidence of the consumption of many roots and tubers, some of which show evidence of cooking (Henry, Brooks, & Piperno, 2010). The full impact of the adoption of cooked starches on the human body has not been fully elucidated. One promising adaptation is the starch-digesting salivary amalyse gene, AMY 1 (Perry et al., 2007). Chimpanzees and bonobos have only two copies of this gene, humans have as many as 10 copies, though it varies quite heavily by population from 2 to 10 correlated with the importance of starch in the diet. Molecular genetic evidence places the origin of divergence on this gene at about 200,000 years, about the time when habitual fire use became common. Further genetic analysis shows that adaptations to root and tuber starch as a major source of calories may account for variation in human folic acid metabolism, since folic acid is usually low in starchy vegetables (Hancock et al., 2010).
Another relatively unexplored avenue of research would be whether butyrate in the diet itself has led to decreased reliance on butyrate for colonic fermentation in some cultures that consume large amounts of dietary butyrate. The major source of butyrate in food is from the milk fats of grazing animals (Smith et al., 1998).
It is most common in the modern diet in butter at 3%. It is possible that pastoral cultures consume substantial amounts of exogenous butyrate. Currently there have been few studies on oral consumption of butyrate in humans. Animal studies have been inconclusive, with some showing positive effects and some showing negative effects, which is complicated by the fact that if ingested orally it is also present in the small intestine, where it may play different roles (Sengupta, Muir, & Gibson, 2006; Wächtershäuser & Stein, 2000). A small study found orally-administered butyrate had a positive effect on symptoms of Crohn’s disease, but the method of administration was through pills rather than food (Di Sabatino et al., 2005).
Another potential source of butyrate is fermented foods. Some fermented foods like ogi, a pounded fermented starch, contain measurable levels (Hesseltine, 1979). Fermented foods are worth examining evolutionarily because they represent another human dietary innovation in improving food quality. Fermentation increases the bioavailability of nutrients, breaks down starches, and reduces levels of anti-nutritional factors and toxins (Mugula, 2003). It is unknown how long humans have been purposefully fermenting food. Fermentation naturally occurs in the wild and many wild animals are known to indulge in such foods to the point of drunkenness (Dudley, 2002). Spontaneous fermentation and consumption of such foods by wild primates is unfortunately not well studied. However, fermentation is practiced by almost every known culture to some extent, with the largest diversity in fermented foods among African farmers (Dirar, 1993) It is estimated that fermented foods make up 1/3 of the diet of humans worldwide (van Hylckama Vlieg, Veiga, Zhang, Derrien, & Zhao, 2011). Exogenous fermentation may substitute for the reduced fermentative ability of the human gut.
1. The researchers concluded that colon cancer risk was increased with meat consumption. I will remain skeptical until they do studies on other cultures that eat relatively low-fiber and high-meat diets like the Masai and Siberian cultures for example.
Di Sabatino, A., Morera, R., Ciccocioppo, R., Cazzola, P., Gotti, S., Tinozzi, F. P., et al. (2005). Oral butyrate for mildly to moderately active Crohnʼs disease. Alimentary pharmacology & therapeutics, 22(9), 789-94. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2036.2005.02639.x.
Dirar, H. A. (1993). The indigenous fermented foods of the Sudan: a study in African food and ... (p. 552). CAB International. Retrieved May 9, 2011, from http://books.google.com/books?id=J-ogAQAAIAAJ&pgis=1.
Dudley, R. (2002). Fermenting fruit and the historical ecology of ethanol ingestion: is alcoholism in modern humans an evolutionary hangover? Addiction (Abingdon, England), 97(4), 381-8. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11964055.
Hancock, A. M., Witonsky, D. B., Ehler, E., Alkorta-Aranburu, G., Beall, C., Gebremedhin, A., et al. (2010). In Light of Evolution IV: The Human Conditions Sackler Colloquium: Human adaptations to diet, subsistence, and ecoregion are due to subtle shifts in allele frequency. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(Supplement_2), 8924-8930. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0914625107.
Henry, A. G., Brooks, A. S., & Piperno, D. R. (2010). Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 1-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1016868108.
Hesseltine, C. W. (1979). Some important fermented foods of Mid-Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, 56(3), 367-374. Springer Berlin / Heidelberg. doi: 10.1007/BF02671501.
Hylckama Vlieg, J. E. van, Veiga, P., Zhang, C., Derrien, M., & Zhao, L. (2011). Impact of microbial transformation of food on health-from fermented foods to fermentation in the gastro-intestinal tract. Current opinion in biotechnology, 22(2), 219-211. doi: 10.1016/j.copbio.2010.12.004.
McKenna, P., Hoffmann, C., Minkah, N., Aye, P. P., Lackner, A., Liu, Z., et al. (2008). The macaque gut microbiome in health, lentiviral infection, and chronic enterocolitis. PLoS pathogens, 4(2), e20. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.0040020.
Mugula, J. (2003). Microbiological and fermentation characteristics of togwa, a Tanzanian fermented food. International Journal of Food Microbiology, 80(3), 187-199. doi: 10.1016/S0168-1605(02)00141-1.
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Living in Queens, one of the most diverse counties in the nation, I have been able to experience many interesting traditional cuisines. But I'd also been able to observe people losing their traditions without even really noticing. There are two examples that come to mind, both involving fermented rice. One is the Indian Idli, which Stephan has blogged about.
The spicy coconut chutney in the middle and the sambar soup are SO DELICIOUS.
The other is the Filipino Puto.
SO chewy and delicious with butter!
If you go to the market and ask a random elder woman of each culture who she makes these dishes, you will probably get wildly divergent answers. Some women still ferment the rice, but a lot of them are using modern ingredients. For both you can now buy batter mix with leavening agents so you don't have to ferment at all. Some people also now add wheat flour to these dishes. I'd had 70 year old women tell me that baking powder is the traditional way to make idli.
It's a shame because fermentation produces a rich flavor that can't be compared to those made with mixes. It's very possible that the fermented versions also have some health benefits. Though probiotic bacteria are probably killed during the steaming process and white rice doesn't have many anti-nutrients, they may endow the rice with more vitamins. Idli probably has more benefits because it also contains skinless urad dal, which has some antinutrients and lectins, though much less than the skinned version.
A dosa is the pancake version of the idli. THere have been some studies on the fermented batter. "They produced flavour, enzymes and helped in the saccharification of starch. Both bacteria and yeasts were contributed by the ingredients Oryza sativa and Phaseolus mungo. The prevalence of bacteria and yeasts was affected by seasonal variations but bacteria always dominated the overall microbial load."
There is also some evidence that fermented rice improves cholesterol markers and reduces fatigue in animals. though these studies have used more grainy fermented rice like red rice or brown rice. I've had very good results with fermented white rice, but a lot of the fermented brown rice products make me feel somewhat ill. However, some of them, like the health food store drink Amazake, contain considerable amount of sugar which could confound things.
Kombucha. It's a magical fermented health drink that cures everything because it was developed by wise ancient Chinese monks or something. It's fairly tasty once you get used to it, perhaps even delicious and refreshing. It doesn't have much sugar either.
Recently I had been drinking it habitually after finding out the 711 right around the corner carried my favorite flavors. Since I can't have beer anymore (*cries*) except the gluten free kind that tastes awful and a tablespoon of wine makes me blind drunk, Kombucha became my flavorful and refreshing drink of choice.
The problem was that around that same time I started feeling kind of sick in the afternoon. I just couldn't believe my beloved kombucha was the problem, so I initially blamed seasonal allergies.
At some point I looked at my spending habits and figured I shouldn't buy a $4 bottle of kombucha every day. I planned on buying a kombucha starter kit eventually. Miraculously, not only did my pocketbook get heavier, but the afternoon sickness went away.
Lots of people ascribe fairly magical powers to fermented foods and many sick people down barrels of sauerkraut and kefir believing they will provide them health. But we have to remember that people with food sensitivities also often have cross reactions to pretty much EVERYTHING. Yeast is a fairly common sensitivities for those sensitive to gluten, but fermented foods also contain other potentially irritating ingredients like amines and histamine. In the end, while paleolithic people would have probably consumed lots of bacteria and yeasts, modern fermented foods have them in very high amounts.
So if you are having a problem, don't blame it on "detox." Take a good look at your diet, even at foods you think are healthy. Fermented foods can help heal, but they can also cause reactions.
Last weekend the fridge at work was left ajar, which was overall a complete disaster. But I did notice that a jug of apple cider was bulging. Aha! A sign of fermentation. I poured it into a glass. It was fizzy and smelled kind of alcoholic. I took a swig. It was fairly tasty, though later I realized I didn't need the alcohol at 11 AM.
A few years ago I would have been aghast at eating "spoiled" food like that, but since becoming intimate with fermentation, I am much more daring. The fridge is a recent invention and our ancestors might not have had the luxury to turn up their noses at food that's a little...um...off? But "off" sort of implies the food is bad, when actually in many cases it's good.
The status of fermentation in the paleo diet is controversial. Many paleo books do not mention it and Cordain's Paleo Diet newsletter recently knocked kombucha for containing acetic acid and yeast (they also said it causes metabolic acidosis...of which there is one case in the medical literature and the person in question also had other serious problems).
That's nonsense. Our our bodies are full of yeast and acetic-acid producing bacteria and our natural environment would have also been rich in these. Think about the life of a hunter-gatherer. From birth to death they are surrounded by dirt. Of course this is bad when you have a wound that gets infected, but this immersion in dirty nature probably means their bodies are more biodiverse than ours.
Contrast that with my birth, which was a C-section done in a clean environment. Science shows that C-sections alter gut bacteria, which is bad news, because largely the species established when you are young are the ones that stay with you for the rest of your life. There is plenty of science supporting the Hygiene Hypothesis, which posits that children growing up in clean environments have higher incidences of allergies, asthma, and other diseases of civilization. There is emerging evidence that gut bacteria plays a role in metabolic syndrome as well.
There is no question in my mind that our modern gut biodiversity caused by our divorce from dirt is a bad thing.
Having a history of stomach problems, managing my gut bacteria is important to me. I do it two ways: not eating foods that seem to encourage the proliferation of misery-causing bacteria and then balancing my bacteria with probiotic foods. "Cleansing" is a bad idea because it gets rid of both bad and good bacteria and irritates the gut...and an irritated gut can't be a good habitat.
A few times since starting the paleo diet I've gone off the band wagon. My IBS soon returns with a vengeance. I can tell the wrong bacteria are having a feast at my expense. My strategy for getting it under control borrows a lot from the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which treats colitis by reducing such fermentation. Last time this problem happened, after a week of staying up late to plan a food event and then eating lots of carby sugary food at the event, I calmed things down by eating zero carb for a week. I particularly enjoyed a tonic of egg yolks cooked in bone broth.
Soon my stomach was feeling much better, but I don't think zero carb completely solves the situation. I think fermented foods are the missing link, providing valuable bacteria and truly digestible nutrients.
While the scientific studies show that it's very hard and perhaps impossible to add new species to your gut, probiotics can still have an effect, though it will go away if you discontinue them. Furthermore, fermented foods often are simply easier for your body to digest and contain many beneficial bioavilable nutrients.
That brings me to Wild Fermentation, which was really a groundbreaking book for me. It taught me to embrace and take advantage of wild crazy bacteria.
This book is of the post-vegan canon. Sandor was a vegan, but a serious health problem propelled him to become omnivorous. In his case, it was AIDS.
But Wild Fermentation contains a wide variety of ferments suitable for all diets. The exception is meat ferments, which he does himself, but does not include instructions for in his book. He refers readers to The Indigenous Fermented Food of the Sudan, which apparently tells of how the Sudanese ferment meat nose to tail. Unfortunately that book seems to be unaffordable.
That's OK with me actually...I'm not sure meat fermentation is something I want to dabble in right now. The main ferment I consume is lacto-fermented vegetables. It's quite funny because just a few years ago I wouldn't have eaten pickles or sauerkraut if you paid me. I think my tastebuds were to put it lightly, shallow from years of consuming industrial food lacking in complexity. I admittedly had to force myself to eat my first batches of pickled vegetables, but at this point I LOVE them. They are tangy and delicious. The best part is that I now crave sour foods rather than sweet foods.
Pickled ginger carrots vs. Snickers? I'll take the former. The variety of flavors, the spicy and sour ginger with the tart carrots, is just superior.
An important thing I learned from this book was the distinction between vinegar preservation and lacto-fermentation. You can make pickles by just putting some cucumbers in vinegar, but they will not have the same health-giving or flavor properties as vegetables that have been fermented.
Sandor particularly praises sauerkraut: he talks about a study that shows that it is much richer in cancer-fighting compounds than plain old cabbage. I personally find that the best sauerkraut is made in a heavy crock with a water seal that allows the cabbage to breath, but doesn't allow mold to get in. Luckily, I have access to one, but if I didn't I would make kimchi, which is just as tasty and more resistant to mold. However, Sandor says not to worry too much about mold, as it seems to be a surface phenomonon that doesn't affect the overall welfare of the cabbage buried beneath the brine.
One of the joys I experienced when I first ate Korean food was all the delicious pickled vegetables they bring you. I realized after my first Korean meal that you really can pickle almost any robust vegetable. Vegetable fermentation has become trendy in NYC and the local farmer's markets are full of pickled beets, radishes, onions, carrots, peppers, and silky wonderful mushrooms. The most surprising pickle I had recently was pickled beet stems, which is a revelation since I usually throw those away. The pickling process had muted the bitterness, but preserved the crunchiness and added a rhubarb-like tartness.
Some of the other ferments Sandor addresses are less relevant to the paleo diet, but great if you eat grains to get the full nutrition out of them. Kefir is relevant to everybody since you can make it from ruminant milk, nut milk, and anything that has fermentable sugars like coconut water.
Overall, my digestion feels better when I consume fermented foods and I have noticed that my seasonal allergies are much better. But of course, the main reason to eat them is that they are delicious and nourishing.
Last year I read a certain book that extolled the virtues of fermented coconut water, but gave no instructions for making it. Instead, the author's website sold the drink and it wasn't cheap. I wanted to try it myself, so I went on Ebay and bought water kefir grains for about $6.
Now water kefir is kind of like dairy kefir, but it supposedly thrives in just sugar water rather than milk. The problem was that my grains never really thrived. There is a host of conflicting and bizarre information out there about how to treat them and somewhere along the way I did something wrong. I tried all kinds of different fancy sugars, spring water, artisan dried fruit....but they never reproduced. Whatever, I still got benefits from them even if they are pain to take care of. Since you don't ferment kefir as long as kombucha, cleaning and feeding them was a chore I had to do every other day. Maybe they were unhappy because I went on vacation and left them in the fridge....it's hard to find babysitters for tiny gelatinous bacterial and yeast colonies. However, I plan on buying more soon and hopefully I can figure it out, because I really enjoyed the drinks I made.
I suspect the reason that people buy expensive coconut water is that the way to make it is NOT to put your kefir grains in the coconut water. You should do a normal water kefir ferment that consists of sugar and lemon for a day or so. Then use that fermented water and mix it with coconut water or whatever juice you want in a nice bottle with a good stopper. A couple of days later you should have carbonated fermented coconut water. It's probiotic and has less sugar than normal coconut water. Ferments of other fruit juices are delicious too and water kefir is less harshly acidic than kombucha.
Learn how to use fermentation to get the most out of your food. And Sandor ferments pretty much everything in this book. A huge variety of valuable information for anyone.
Another consideration for GERD via Whole Health Source: fermentable carbs, specifically fructooligosaccharides (FOS) might make it worse. It makes sense- colonic fermentation seems to play a huge role in digestive disorders. A low fermentative diet, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, has long been used for inflammatory bowl disease. It's funny because fiber-rich vegetables and grains are often suggested for GERD patients, but this study shows they just make everything worse. Foods high in FOS include bananas, onions, chicory root, garlic, asparagus, barley, wheat, jícama, tomatoes, and leeks. Most of those foods I never eat- it's interesting that most weren't encountered by humans until the neolithic, except the alliums, but wild alliums are very small. Others, like garlic, I find are OK as long as they are cooked very well. FOS is sometimes added to foods like kefir to make them "prebiotic," which is unforunate because it's clear they can feed both good and bad bacteria. This article sums up the concerns:
6. Since Inulin/FOS is found in natural foods it must be okay, right?
Wrong. Sucrose (table sugar) is naturally found in beets, sugar cane, oranges, and other plants. Humans have perverted this naturally occurring substance into a refined chemical. Sucrose is arguably one of the most unhealthy food additives in human history. We should learn from our experiences with sucrose and apply them to Inulin/FOS. Instead of adding refined, super concentrated Inulin/FOS to your food, eat the foods that naturally contain Inulin/FOS.
The body is genetically adapted to certain foods and if we continue to mess with our food chain then our health will suffer the consequences. Of the nutritional fibers, cellulose was the most likely to be included in a traditional hunter-gatherer diet. Cellulose is an insoluble fiber that is slowly fermented by the microbial population in the human colon. Inulin/FOS is a soluble fiber that is quickly and easily fermented. The difference between cellulose (a food we are adapted to) and Inulin/FOS (a food we are not adapted to) is like the difference between a slow burning ember and a raging fire. Who likes playing with fire?
To help clear my GERD, I followed a very low carb diet. I wonder if that diet stopped feeding the bad bacteria and allowed my bacteria to normalize. There is really no way of knowing, but it's clear the fiber isn't a great solution for GERD.
Foods that are already fermented, like kimchi and pickles, may be less of a problem because most what can be fermented has probably already been consumed by bacteria. Furthermore, they provide beneficial bacteria. You shouldn't have to risk feeling baddies to heal your gut.