This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
Lately one of the Asian groceries I go to started selling roasted Laver with olive oil. This is an important development, since in the past the only laver available at the store contained high omega-6 industrial oils like soybean or grapeseed. Also sesame oil, which is tasty, but still too high in omega-6.
Either way, for those not in the know, laver is a delicious seaweed. Delicious because when roasted it's crispy and salty, kind of like a potato chip. I have to have some self control and not eat it all at once. It's luckily very low carb and generally low-calorie.
I'm a little late for this, but perhaps St. Patrick also ate it? I was surprised to find that Laver isn't just an Asian food, but it was consumed in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales in ancient times. Now its Celtic consumption is mainly limited to Wales. Traditionally they cook it for a very long time and mix it with oats and fry it in lard. I'll have to purchase some plain laver and give that a try sometime. In Wales that's called Bara Lawer or Laverbread.
Here is a recipe. I'm sure it could be simmered for ten hours on low in a crock pot- i'll report back on how that works out.
I LOVE Korean-style seaweed snacks. They are crispy, salty, and naturally low-carb. Recently they have become very popular in Brooklyn for some reason. The Park Slope Coop can't keep the Annie Chun's seaweed snacks in stock. Unfortunately most brands contain canola and/or sesame oil, which I like to limit. Yesterday I noticed Seasnax at my local grocery store, which are made with olive oil instead:
While olive oil isn't perfectly "paleo," it's a much better choice for your fatty acid balance. And these are delicious and addictive...
Sometimes people ask me where I get my iodine. I get most of it from seaweed. I find seaweed to be absolutely delicious, but not all types of seaweed are good sources of iodine. Nori, for example, has only 15 ppm iodine, whereas kelp has 500-1500 ppm. What does kelp taste like? It tastes briny to me and I greatly enjoy it with braised pork dishes. I first had pork and seaweed at a small ramen bar on the Upper East Side and I feel in love with the sea salty silky fatty combination. At home I use these organic kelp granules from Maine in place of salt. The back of the container recommends 1/4 teaspoon on average, but up to several teaspoons for those who may be deficient. It references a book called Iodine: Why You Need It by David Brownstein, which I definitely want to check out.
However, kelp isn't for everyone. Some people dislike its very strong flavor. If you aren't eating a lot of seafood, you might want to take it in pill form.
Expect more posts on iodine in the future...I haven't been posting much because I'm terribly behind with work, but hopefully I can get caught up soon!
A while back I read an article mentioning a book called Prehistoric Cookery. It had some interesting ideas, so I bought the book.
Unfortunately the book is really a tiny little coffee table book. I was hoping for something more substantial, but it did get me thinking about ancient mesolithic and iron age diets of the Celts.
Scotland and Ireland are disproportionately affected by alcoholism, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and celiac disease. For some time there was a theory that this was because Celts are descended from a "Celtic Fringe" of more recent hunter-gatherers similar to the Finnish and Sami fringe further north. Recently, that theory was seriously questioned by genetic research that showed that Celts are most likely descendants of Middle Eastern neolithic farmers, mixed with perhaps some local hunter-gatherer stock.
It's really quite amazing how ignorant even scientific professionals are about the history of food, such as Colin T. Campbell or the professor in the article about Prehistoric Cookery, Brian Radcliffe, who claims
“The main lesson is that as humans we need a huge variety of food from a range of different sources and food groups, ” he says. “We can see from early man’s experience that it is not good enough to rely upon single sources and single groups of foods because they did not give them the nutrients they needed.
Ugh. First of all, he obviously hasn't read the book he is commenting on, which clearly shows the wide variety of foods consumed by the Celts ranging from fish roe to nettles to berries. Also, he doesn't seem to know about the many groups of indigenous peoples who rely on flesh and are healthy.
The author of Prehistoric Cookery makes some of the same mistakes, saying that "like studied hunter-gatherers" the diet of ancient Celts would have been 80% plants, which is NOT true. Hunter-gathers studied get most of their calories from meat. Isotope studies indicate that the Celtic diet in the Iron Age was very high in meat.
Mesolithic Celts seem to have eaten deer and wild boar. Their remains are typically on the shoreline, where they left shell middens and probably ate seaweed, roe, and whole fish. Early grains cultivated were mainly oats. Barley and early forms of wheat swept in later, but oats remained very important. Perhaps that is why their teeth in the Medieval period were better than the more wheat-centric English.
Weston A. Price visited the Isle of Lewis in Scotland and found that the natives were remarkably healthy and had beautiful teeth despite their "limited" diet. A diet of fish and oats might seem limited to us, but they ate parts of the fish that we typically don't:
An important and highly relished article of diet has been baked cod's head stuffed with chopped cod's liver and oatmeal.
I do think it's important to note that the oat eaters of the mesolithic were just not as healthy as their hunter-gatherer ancestors. Their bones were smaller and less sturdy. Traditional agrarian diets aren't bad, but I still don't believe they are optimal.
Here are some foods that I would definitely like to eat more of from Prehistoric Cookery include:
The traditional bread was nearly flat and rather tough. It's interesting because since breads persist in Scandinavia. A local NYC bakery does the real thing. The Celts also fermented their oats.
On the subject of Ireland, it's also good to note that of course the potato was introduced very late. It spurred population increases that ended up being disastrous when the potato famine hit. Before potatoes were introduced, the diet of the Irish probably resembled that of the Masai, as they also relied on their cattle herds for both dairy and meat.
Cattle blood, not potatoes for Cuchulainn
If you want to see some beautiful photos of traditional fish eating in a Gwich'in camp, look here, though keep in mind that at the time these pictures were taken, this tribe was eating modern foods.
Lately health blogger Matt Stone has been creating a bit of a controversy in paleo circles by blaming thyroid issues on low carbing. There is no question that many long term low carbers and paleo dieters suffer from thyroid issues . Why? Arctic cultures like the Inuit, Koyoukon, Yupik, Sami, and many others have a traditional diet that is very low in carbohydrates. Many people have written about how healthy they are despite following a diet that's not exactly the USDA food pyramid.
I think it's pretty clear that the problems people are having are not due to a lack of cornbread. What all the healthy arctic people had in common was that they consumed a wealth of marine foods ranging from seal liver to seaweed. Marine foods have nutrients all of us could benefit from. Traditional cultures not only ate fish, they ate whole fish: fish eyes, liver, and bones. This stuff is a hard sell to those of us who grew up eating the typical American diet, but it's definitely worth getting used to eating, as the arctic explorers did.
Until I was twenty seven I had the belief about myself that I could not eat fish and felt certain that its taste was obnoxious to me. I thought it an interesting peculiarity and assumed that everyone else would think so and there were few things I told about so often as the fact that I was peculiar in that I could not eat fish. I think I might have lost the notion sooner if it had not formed such an excellent topic of conversation
I've said it many times: if your paleo or low carb diet is a bunch of ground meat and some chicken breasts, you probably need to rethink things. As far as the carb controversy, it's a rather old one. The Weston A. Price Foundation has been criticizing the paleo diet for not including traditional dairy and fermented grain/legume products. In his books food ecologist Gary Nabhan recounts how Native American tribes like the Pima never suffered from obesity on their traditional high carb diet. Born To Run recounts the impressive athletic fears of the corn-loving Tarahumara tribe. The yam eating Kitavans don't have too many problems either.
But the paleo diet is about more than just not being obese. Plenty of people follow it to heal from autoimmune conditions and damage from eating the Standard American Diet. Others follow it to improve athletic performance. The truth is that while traditional agrarian cultures didn't have type II diabetes epidemics, the healthiest bones that anthropologists have found were those of coastal foragers. As Dr. Kurt Harris says "tolerated is not optimal."
Lately ajitsuke-nori has been supplanting kale chips as my paleo snack of choice. Ajitsuke-nori is nori toasted with a nasty paste, typically made from soy sauce, rice wine, fish paste, and chili pepper. You can buy it as a Japanese grocery, but it's hard to find without gluten-containing soy sauce. You can make it yourself simply by painting a sheet of nori with a mixture of gluten-free soy sauce, rice wine, and your favorite flavorings. Brush it on and toast until the coating is dry and the nori crispy...voila! A delicious snack rich in iodine and other essential minerals.
I hear it all the time: why not just eat a diet like the Okinawans, the healthiest and longest lived people in the world? Traditionally they ate rice, tofu, and almost no meat! Unfortunately after WWII Americans introduced bad foods like pork and now disease rates are increasing.
That's the conventional narrative at least. Honestly, I'm not sure about the Okinawan diet. Most of the people discussing it are Americans with some sort of ax to grind. I would love to hear some Okinawan voices tell us what they actually ate, but those are few and far between.
Americanized nonsense "Okinawan Diet"
The picture that is painted from the actual studies available is pretty murky, but shows that what is being promoted as an Okinawan diet is cultural misappropriation for profit, with American nutritionists making $$$ passing off what ends up being a Mediterranean diet with rice as the secrets of Okinawan elders.
The real traditional diet seemed to consist of yams, goat, pork, tofu, seaweed, and seafood harvested from the island. It seems like it was pretty similar to the diet of Kitava. After the devastation of World War II, importation of food increased and oils, sugar, flour, white rice, and other processed foods became staples. The narrative of fat consumption increase only takes statistics starting from World War II, so we really don't have much of an idea of how much fat was in the traditional diet.
We do know the the consumption of traditional foods like raw goat, yams, and seaweed decreased dramatically. Also, that domestic meat production didn't really change much after WWII and much of that increase was probably recovery from devastation of the war. The increase of meat consumption came mostly from imported animals that were probably factory-farmed...or SPAM, which is now hugely popular there.
It does seem that their traditional diet was high in carbohydrates from yams, but its nonsense make up an Okinawan Diet plan including foods that are nothing like what pre-WWII Okinawans consumed such as whole grain bread, olive oil, soy milk, apples, and yogurt. The traditional Okinawan diet doesn't seem to be far from my own paleo diet, except for the soy . Fortunately, the harmful effects of that can be mitigated by fermentation. I occasionally consume some fermented soy since I am an Asian food enthusiast and I adore the taste of miso and ssämjang. Yam are controversial on the paleo diet, but personally I enjoy them without ill effects. I would say my own paleo diet is heavily influenced by Japanese cuisine and benefits from it tremendously. I could never tolerate a diet of just eggs and ground meat...I'm too much of a foodie and an omnivore for that!
Here is a recent paper on the importance of the yam, kombu, and pork offal in Okinawa. Paleo dieters could definitely benefit from the consumption of kombu, which is rich in iodine, and pork offal (feet, ears, blood, intestines), which is delicious and contains many important nutrients. The problem with this paper is that they assume that people threw away pork fat...I don't know of any agrarian culture that exhibits that kind of waste. They say akunuki is removal of fat, but it also seems to mean removal of astringent taste.
Speaking of Japan, I was just reading this editorial by Swedish scientist Uffe Ravnskov:
In a study of Japanese migrants in the United States the cultural upbringing was the strongest predictor of coronary heart disease. Those who were brought up in a non-Japanese fashion but preferred the lean Japanese food had a heart attack almost twice as often as those who were brought up in the Japanese way but preferred fatty American food.4
I think it's possible that the issue here was that they thought fat wasn't traditional for Japan, but it sheds light on the fact that fat doesn't seem to cause heat disease.
I misplaced my camera, so I drew this on MS Paint. It's probably better than the pictures I take anyway.
I won't lie, I have trouble following recipes. There is always some ingredient that I don't have and some ingredient that I want to add to see what happens. I apologize to the people who have eaten some of experiments over the years. Eventually I do get things right though. I have made numerous squash soups and most of them have been atrocious. Thankfully, I have managed to figure out a method that I think gets optimal nutrition with paleo ingredients.
First, the squash. While pumpkin has many positive associations, it is actually a pretty inferior squash and most canned pumpkin is actually hubbard squash. I like Hubbard, Red Kuri, Kabotcha, and Butternut squashes because they have non-stringy texture and plenty of flesh. Yes, you can put squash in your crock pot and it turns out great. You don't even have to cut it up, just stick it in there on low, go about your business and when its soft you can add it to things without even peeling it, just cut and scoop out the flesh.
Second, the stock. I usually make soup when I have leftover bones lying around. The longer you cook those bones, the better nutrition you get from them, including calcium, which is hard to get in non-dairy diets. The stock can also be made in the crock pot, of course. An hour before I am going to make the soup, I put the stock in a pot and add some seaweed, an important source of iodine and other minerals, and some dried mushrooms. I simmer that and sometimes it smells not so delicious, but in the end it tastes fine. After that I add the soft squash and some spices and simmer it 10 minutes more.
After that, my mission is to make it creamy by getting rid of the stringy parts of the squash and adding some creamy fat. I used to use coconut milk, but because of the BPA problem I use it less and less. Tonight I used homemade nut milk. I blended just a few walnuts until I got a creamy liquid and strained the nut pulp out. You could also use the flesh of a young thai coconut. If you tolerate dairy well, just use cream...because it uh, makes things creamy pretty well.
Remove the bone and the seaweed if you don't like it. I leave it in though and add everything to the blender along with the nut milk/cream and blend it. Voila! Creamy flavorful squash soup packed with nutrients.
I forgot to mention that this soup is also extremely soothing for upset stomachs. Kombu and squash are both prized for their ability to calm the digestive system.
In the mainstream scientific community there is a consensus that there was a major dietary shift that occurred in our evolution which allowed us, as humans, to have the large energy-hungry brains we have now. The most largely accepted theory is that it was hunting down large predators on the savanna. The Wrangham hypothesis that it was cooked tubers is getting press lately because he has a book out. But there is another theory that I think deserves a look: that our move from chimpanzee-like primate to humans was when we started living by the waterside. That would account for why the human brain seems to run on omega-3 fatty acids that are so abundant in seafood.
Anecdotal, but the diet I have settled on is most like what early humans dwelling by the waterside might have eaten. I personally gravitate towards water: I'm a good swimmer and when I think about processing a rabbit or digging in the ground for tubers vs. grabbing a fish and a coconut....well I think most early humans would have picked the latter. Note that I'm not advocating the discredited aquatic ape theory, which theorized an ape ancestor that had gills and fins.
While we fully agree that the structural, cognitive and visual development of the brain requires adequate amounts of certain nutrients including DHA (Crawford and Sinclair 1972), we think the initial shift might have included more abundant and easily obtainable DHA-rich sources such as shellfish, crayfish, fish, turtles, birds and eggs (Broadhurst et al. 1998). Since the primary source of DHA is algae and plankton, it is abundant in the marine and lacustrine food chains, but almost absent in the meat, fats and offal associated with carnivore remains (Broadhurst et al. 2002). Other brain-selective nutrients are also more abundant in aquatic than in terrestrial milieus. This is notably the case for brain-selective minerals such as iron, copper, zinc,selenium, and iodine (Table 5). Of all the major food groups, shellfish requires the least amount (900 grams) to meet the minimum requirement for all five minerals, and is also the food group for which these requirements are most evenly distributed. Eggs (2500 grams) and fish (3500 grams), both more abundant at the waterside than in terrestrial environments, are next, while 5000 grams of meat, five times more than shellfish, would be needed to meet the minimum daily requirements for all five minerals (Table 5). Iodine especially is more abundant in littoral food chains than terrestrial food chains, and before the iodinisation of drinking-water and salt, hypothyroidy caused by iodine deficiency resulted in mental retardation and cretinism in millions of humans who lived away from the coasts....
Humans have about ten times as much subcutaneous fat as most terrestrial mammals and non-human primates including chimpanzees, and in this respect they approach ‘lean’ aquatics such as fin whales