This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
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.
I spent this weekend in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania at the Weston A. Price Foundation's Wise Traditions conference with John Durant and Allison Bojarski. I live-Tweeted it, but here is also a list of things I learned:
And a bonus:
11. The government isn't going to fix the food system and in its blundering will destroy many small farmers and food businesses. Wow, it was scary seeing a doc called Farmageddon, which was accounts of military-style raids on FARMS. It was weird being in the same room as many of the people I did my senior food law thesis on like Linda Faillace and Mark McAfee. I was very glad to pay $4 at breakfast for bone broth because it supported the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund. But I still don't feel sad about not going to law school because the whole thing is just too depressing for me.
A reader left an interesting comment:
I'm a Polyface intern and CrossFit enthusiast. Polyface has a pretty amicable relationship with the Weston A. Price Foundation, which has a lot in common with Paleo. The difference, however, is that WAPF espouses traditional diets that often include grains. The crisis in nutrition didn't start with the introduction of grains 10,000 years ago, right? It started with the maturation and confluence of the food and marketing industries and the flight from agrarian areas to cities. This was mere decades ago. Traditional diets are the answer.
A Paleo diet seems to me to be ultimately fundamentalist and impossible to follow. There is no way we can know what hunter/gatherers 10,000 years ago actually consumed. It makes much more sense to follow human culture and eat traditional diets like we have been for millennia, including sprouted grains!
I tend to be very sympathetic with the idea that agrarian diets are good. But there is simply no escaping the fact that
1. Grains are not necessary to be healthy
2. Despite that fact that many agrarian populations are health compared to us, archaeological evidence shows that they are shorter, have smaller crania, and sometimes have worse teeth. Of course agrarian populations vary quite a lot. I find it quite odd to see people like Matt Stone and other starch-pushers extol traditional potato-based diets. Yes, those people were not obese, but they were very short and when immigrants from these populations move to the US the height gains in their children are quite dramatic. Traditional grains and starches might not be "bad," but are they the best foods to pick when you have access to plenty of easily-digested nutritious meat and fish?
As for the Paleo diet being fundamentalist and impossible to follow, I actually don't think it is. I eat at normal restaurants and shop at normal stores. I am a fan of the WAPF and eat some agrarian foods. Ironically it's THOSE foods that require me to engage in illegal activity, order stuff online, spend hours grinding grains, planning ahead to ferment them. I LOVE idlis and buckwheat pancakes, but I almost never make them because they are too much of a pain. I run my own consulting business and it's much easier for me to just throw a bunch of meat and vegetables into a pan and eat it. I think WAPF is a good diet, but I'm not sure it's the best diet and I'm positive it's not the easiest.
You are right, I don't know exactly what hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago ate. They didn't leave any recipe books. But paleo isn't reenactment, it's about nutritional principles: fat is good, animals are the perfect food, and grains should be limited are the main principles I live by.
* as for shortness being a bad thing, it's only an indicator of a less than optimal diet if people aren't acheiving the max height possible for their genes. There is plenty of evidence from immigration that a lot of people in agrarian cultures don't reach that max height. Caries in agrarian populations are well documented, with some having very high rates (mostly corn based) and others low (milk and rice based).
Yes, apparently even babies can show signs of the dreaded diseases of civilization. Ugh, very scary.
Here are some WAPF events coming up. WAPFers are paleo allies in the war for real food and delicious fat. I might not be crazy for grains or dairy, but they have some useful things to say. In NYC the paleo tribe seems to be mostly singles, but WAPFers tend to be those with children or thinking about them. That's great- we need more healthy children out there.
Here are some WAPF and Traditional Nutrition Events coming up:
I made this last week hoping to use it as a tool to talk with people about paleo and other alternative diets. It can be often be difficult because so many people tell me that foragers are not healthy and that our modern life is the best. They have images from National Geographic of impoverished "primitives" and the "didn't they only live to be 30" meme in mind. Often they will tell me that they are so glad for modern life because if they had been born back then they would have died because they need a C-section or had some horrible case of strep throat.
They aren't really separating environmental issues from food. In much of modern middle class America, our environment is low-risk. Notice that I didn't say better. There are plenty of things wrong with our environment ranging from over-sanitation to lack of sunlight. In fact there might be chronic low grade risks in the modern environment from environmental contamination, too much light, etc. But we generally don't have to worry about risky childbirth, lions, tribal warfare, malaria, tuberculosis, hunting accidents, and all kinds of nasty things that are out there in the wild.
Our hazards are largely caused by an inappropriate diet that leaves us with obesity, diabetes, cancer, IBS, GERD and other diseases that are almost exclusively present in modern society. The standard american diet leaves us in quadrant III, not worrying about lions, but worrying about blood sugar and BMI instead. Pairing nutrition appropriate for human beings with the benefits of modern life allows us to move to quadrant IV. Notice I include Whole Foods Vegan there. I certainly believe you can lose weight on such a diet, I just don't believe it's an optimal diet. A truly optimal diet like WAPF or paleo allows the possibility of raising truly healthy children with well developed teeth and bones. Personally veganism also wasn't adequate to help me heal from GERD and my teeth weren't in such great shape afterwards either. But I'm throwing a cookie here to vegans that at least don't eat processed crap, vegetable oils, and sugar. They are better off than most, especially if they are utilizing fermentation of grains, legumes, and vegetables. A vegetarian diet that includes fermented dairy and eggs is even closer to being appropriate nutrition for our econiche.
You'll notice that modern hunter-gatherers have less appropriate nutrition and a harsher environment than their paleolithic predecessors. Civilization has pushed them into unwanted land that less oppressed foragers would have shunned. They also struggle with diseases introduced by outsiders.
Nomads and agrarian peasant cultures are also relatively healthy. They are eating neolithic foods, but they have been eating them long enough to know how to derive nutrition from them and minimize their antinutritional factors through fermentation and soaking. Lots of people look at these cultures and think "oh, well I guess their genes adapted to agriculture and it's OK for me to eat this Nutrigrain bar since my ancestors were agrarian." Nope, most of the adaptation was not genetic, but technological. People figured out that if they fermented and limed their corn they didn't have malformed bones. I tell people who are skeptical of paleo to go ahead and eat grains, but at least embrace the technology so many of us have forgotten that allows us to not poison ourselves with them. So many people read about the Tarahumara made famous in Born To Run and think that their health means some boiled corn on the cob is superfood. Wrong- the Tarahumara soak and lime their corn.
I don't do grains much myself because while these technologies these traditional societies came up with are amazing, they don't completely rid grains of their problems. Most of these cultures still preferred meat and ate grains and legumes only because they couldn't afford it. Traditional agrarians aren't fat or diabetic, but their height and bone structure just doesn't approach that of coastal foragers from the studies I've read.
Regardless, this chart isn't any sort of rigorously scientific study- we could probably argue for days where to place things, but it's a decent matrix for separating appropriate nutrition from other factors. That's definitely only one part of the picture, but it's a very important part. The other pieces are important too- sunlight, community, loving child rearing, a not too sterile environment, and being physically active for example. But dealing with the diet is a great first step.
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."